Nuclear Weapons

CTBT ratification and fact-twisting arguments

03.04.10 | 9 min read | Text by Alicia Godsberg

By: Alicia Godsberg

On Friday, February 5 the EastWest Institute (EWI) held a seminar at their office in New York to discuss its recently released report on the CTBT, entitled, “The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: New Technology, New Prospects?” Speaking at the event for the pro-CTBT ratification camp was Ambassador Robert T. Grey, Jr. (Director, Bipartisan Security Group and U.S. Representative to the Conference on Disarmament from 1998-2001) and against was Stephen Rademaker (Senior Council, BGR Government Affairs and Assistant Secretary of State from 2002-2006). The seminar also hosted many representatives of the NGO disarmament community as well as several diplomats from UN missions, including from Iran, Egypt, and South Korea.

Mr. Rademaker articulated familiar reasons for opposing U.S. ratification of the CTBT: it won’t ensure entry into force of the Treaty; the Treaty is unverifiable; the U.S. may need to test in the event the nuclear weapon stockpile becomes unreliable; there is no agreed definition of a “zero yield” nuclear test; and Russia (and possibly China) does not conform to the U.S. definition of absolutely zero yield, enabling them to benefit from such tests while the U.S. adheres to a stricter standard and (presumably) falls behind in knowledge. The fact that each of these assertions has been proven untrue does not stop these talking points from surfacing at every turn.  These arguments have been debunked by various sources, including: NAS(1) and JASON studies (2); the successful tracking and identification of the very low-yield DPRK nuclear tests of 2006 and 2009 by the CTBTO’s verification system; and the public record of Russian statesmen.  Such facts continue to be ignored by those who want to keep open the option of designing and testing nuclear weapons – namely some of the people running the national labs, and those politicians and military personnel who are stuck in Cold War thinking. These people are among the loudest voices trying to hold ratification of the CTBT hostage to an outdated concept of the usefulness of nuclear weapons and the prestige of nuclear weapon research and development.

One argument against CTBT ratification that cannot stand is the misuse of the Strategic Posture Review Commission’s (SPRC) report that was submitted to Congress on May 6, 2009. The argument goes as follows: because certain assertions by Commissioners that were against Treaty ratification were included in the final report without rebuttal from Commissioners that were for ratification, those assertions must be taken as true – as given facts. As a staff assistant to one of the twelve Commissioners, I would like to put to rest some of what are at best misconceptions about the SPRC’s CTBT section, and at worst deliberate manipulations of the facts.

The twelve Commissioners on the SPRC could not agree on a common position on the CTBT. Chairman William Perry decided that, although the Commission strived for consensus, this issue was too important to water down, and the divisions were too deep to even try. Hence, the report contains the separate arguments by the proponents and opponents of CTBT ratification, along with “specific recommendations” to the Obama administration (after acknowledging its previous commitment to actively pursuing Treaty ratification) as to how it should proceed in assessing the benefits and risks associated with Treaty ratification.

In their argument, the opponents of ratification make this point:

Third, the treaty remarkably does not define a nuclear test. In practice this allows different interpretations of its prohibitions and asymmetrical restrictions. The strict U.S. interpretation precludes tests that produce nuclear yield. However, other countries with different interpretations could conduct tests with hundreds of tons of nuclear yield—allowing them to develop or advance nuclear capabilities with low-yield, enhanced radiation, and electro-magnetic-pulse. Apparently Russia and possibly China are conducting low yield tests. This is quite serious because Russian and Chinese doctrine highlights tactical nuclear warfighting. With no agreed definition, U.S. relative understanding of these capabilities would fall further behind over time and undermine our capability to deter tactical threats against allies.(3)

In his remarks to the EWI seminar last week, Mr. Rademaker used the arguments in this paragraph as proof that ratification of the CTBT contained more risks than rewards for the U.S. First, he said that because the proponents of ratification on the Commission did not dispute the claim that Russia and possibly China were currently engaging in low-yield nuclear tests, this in and of itself was proof that these tests were in fact happening and that the U.S. would indeed “fall further behind over time” and become less capable of deterring “tactical threats.”  Having attended a few meetings of the SPRC where debate over CTBT ratification took place, I pointed out during Q & A that the assertion Russia and possibly China were conducting low-yield nuclear tests was made by one of the Commissioners at one meeting late in the process, and when asked to substantiate that claim and say where this information came from, that Commissioner could not. The fact that this assertion was included in the SPRC is surprising on a factual level, but not surprising to those of us that sat in on those meetings. That is, the argument over the CTBT went down to the wire of the second past-due deadline on finalizing the report (not to mention several additional “final edit” internal deadlines), at which point the Chairman insisted that each side of the debate formulate its opinions and recommendations and submit them – without the ability of the other side to comment whatsoever – so that the report could finally be finished without further back-and-forth between the irreconcilable sides. The fact is that the Commissioners were not permitted to comment at this last, late round of paper shuffling in order to meet the already delayed deadline for finishing the report and submitting it to Congress.

Before leaving this subject, it is also important to note that the U.S. conducts subcritical nuclear tests at the high-tech DAHRT facility at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. Subcritical nuclear tests are presumably similar to any tests in which the Russians (and perhaps the Chinese) are engaging, although – according to the anti-CTBT ratification talking point – they are conducting tests that go just over the critical threshold, and the data generated will somehow put the U.S. nuclear weapon complex and arsenal at an intellectual and tactical disadvantage.

According to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, subcritical tests are:

… a component of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Science Based Stockpile Stewardship Management Program (SSMP) and are intended to show whether nuclear weapons components such as Plutonium and Uranium will develop problems as they age. The blasts will not produce a nuclear chain-reaction explosion. They are called “subcritical” because they never reach “critical mass.”(4)

Here, Los Alamos National Lab describes their subcritical testing program:

Deep underground—nearly 1,000 feet down… tunnels and chambers make up what is called the U1a complex, which scientists use to conduct subcritical experiments. These experiments test the basic properties of plutonium driven to high pressures using conventional explosives. These experiments do not generate sustained nuclear chain reactions and thus do not produce nuclear explosions—that is what is meant by subcritical.(5)

Without the entry into force of the CTBT, there is not even a chance that either the U.S. or Russia would allow the installation of radiation/neutron detectors at their test sites to verify experiments are kept at the subcritical level. If the fear is that the Russians will cheat – and the way to prevent them from cheating is to ratify the Treaty so that it might enter into force and actual on-site monitoring could take place – then ratifying the Treaty is clearly in the best interest of the U.S., as it will further the process that will overcome this point of contention.(6)

Another point that is important to mention is that there is indeed an agreed upon definition of “zero yield” nuclear test in the context of the CTBT. Article I (1) of the Treaty states:

Each State Party undertakes not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion, and to prohibit and prevent any such nuclear explosion at any place under its jurisdiction or control.(7)

As Jonathan Granoff of the Global Security Institute pointed out at the EWI seminar, during their deliberations on ratification of the Treaty, the Russian Duma acknowledged that nuclear explosions as per Article I meant “zero yield” explosions, with no nuclear reaction whatsoever. This interpretation is in full agreement with the U.S. position and interpretation of Article I of the Treaty. In 1996 then Russian President Yeltsin (8) and in 1999 then Secretary of State Madeline Albright (during her testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October 1999) (9) both stated that the U.S. and Russia did indeed agree on the definition of “zero yield” as it related to the CTBT.   In other words, the argument that Russia has a different interpretation of “zero yield” and will therefore conduct nuclear tests at low yields (for some presumed benefit and advantage over the U.S.) while the U.S. does not under a CTBT is completely baseless and has no place in the future debate about Treaty ratification.

Other points Mr. Rademaker made during the EWI seminar deserve to be similarly refuted – such as the “fact” that the Treaty is unverifiable – but those points have been made elsewhere better than I can make them.(10)   It is interesting to note, however, that Mr. Rademaker was phoning in from DC and did not know exactly who was attending the meeting (having had too many people to go around the table for introductions at the start), so his remarks about the implausibility of Egypt and Iran ratifying the Treaty even with U.S. ratification were well addressed by the ambassadors present from those countries. It is time to stand up to Cold War politicians and those in the military opposed to U.S. ratification of the CTBT and confront the misrepresentations of the facts head on, and past time to stop letting some at the national labs dictate policy instead of carrying out policy in the national interest.

1. Committee on Technical Issues Related to Ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. “Technical Issues Related to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.” National Academy of Sciences. National Academy Press. Washington, D.C. 2002.
2. “Pit Lifetime.” JSR-06-335. The MITRE Corporation. JASON Program Office. McLean, VA. November, 20, 2006. See also: “Lifetime Extension Program.” JSR-09-334E. The MITRE Corporation. JASON Program Office. McLean, VA. September 9, 2009.
3. “America’s Strategic Posture: The Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States.” William J. Perry, Chairman. James R. Schlesinger, Vice-Chairman. United States Institute of Peace Press. Washington, D.C. 2009.
6. Annex II of the CTBT lists 44 States that must ratify the Treaty before it enters into force. As of 2010, nine of these Annex II States have not yet done so: the United States; Egypt; Indonesia; Islamic Republic of Iran; India; Pakistan; Israel; People’s Republic of China (China); and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Of these nine countries, three have not yet signed the Treaty: India; Pakistan; and DPRK. Some use this entry into force requirement as an argument against Treaty ratification by the U.S., as ratification in and of itself would not bring the Treaty into force. However, the Treaty cannot enter into force without U.S. ratification, and Indonesia and China have already stated or implied they would follow U.S. ratification with their own, with other states likely to do the same. In addition, there have been discussions of a provisional entry into force of the Treaty before all nine Annex II States ratify if necessary.
8. David Hoffman and John F. Harris. “Yeltsin Agrees To Endorse Test Ban Treaty – Conciliatory Gesture Made At Moscow Nuclear Summit.” Washington Post. April 20, 1996. A.01.
9. /nuke/control/ctbt/text/100799albright1.htm