Banning nuclear testing

By Rizwan Asghar
CTBTO Youth Group member
Originally published on The News, 14 July 2017.


“The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches us this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution, as well.” – Barack Obama

Former US President Barack Obama was right in pointing out that we need to bring our moral progress up to speed with the ongoing scientific revolution. Otherwise, we are doomed to failure. Over the past few decades, mankind has made great progress in the fields of science and technology. We have come a long way since the stone axe. However, this marvellous scientific progress has also given us the ability to blow up our planet many times over in a matter of a few hours.

The human race is hurtling towards nuclear Armageddon. But most of us are awfully unwary of it. Nowhere could this be clearer than our complacent attitude towards the development and use of nuclear weapons.

The efforts to achieve an agreement to ban nuclear tests are nearly as old as nuclear weapons themselves. Shortly after the end of World War II in 1945, the nuclear arms race between the former Soviet Union and the US accelerated the likelihood of proliferation in many other parts of the world. The unrestrained testing of nuclear weapons throughout much of the cold war period helped many countries build a more advanced strategic nuclear weapons force, undermining global security and stability.

In 1954, former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru proposed a global ban on nuclear testing as a step toward discouraging further proliferation of nuclear technologies. However, efforts to prohibit nuclear testing remained unrewarded due to the bipolar conflict between two superpowers. In 1962, former US president Kennedy made another effort to initiate negotiations with the then Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev on a global nuclear test ban. But an agreement could not be reached on the type and number of on-site inspections.

Article 1 of the CTBT bans “all nuclear weapon test explosions or other nuclear explosions”. This includes the prohibition of all supercritical hydro-nuclear tests with the ability to produce self-sustaining fission chain reaction. Once the treaty comes into force, it will become difficult for nuclear states to go ahead with the qualitative modernisation of nuclear weapons. In addition, a verifiable ban would make the chances of non-nuclear weapons states developing nuclear capability next to impossible.

According to a study conducted by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 2012, nuclear-armed states “are unlikely to be able to deploy new types of strategic nuclear weapons that fall outside the design range of their nuclear-explosion test experience without several multi-kiloton tests. Such multi-kiloton tests would likely be detectable (even with evasion measures) by appropriately resourced US national technical means and a completed IMS network”. As a result, ratifying the CTBT will go a long way to tame the tiger of the nuclear arms race at both regional and global levels.

The Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 stopped short of banning underground nuclear testing owing to the absence of a reliable verification system. Today, however, our scientific capabilities to ensure compliance with the CTBT are stronger than ever before. The CTBT is one of the most widely supported and effectively verifiable treaties. The treaty’s verification regime has achieved global coverage.

In Pakistan, nuclear scholars, working in different think tanks and academic institutions, should at least initiate a discussion about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear tests. Living under the influence of ultra-patriotic forces with vested interests, strategic scholars in South Asia seldom try to question the rationale behind their respective governments’ positions on different nuclear issues. As a result, we do not even have a thorough understanding of our official position on the CTBT.

Both Pakistan and India have been observing a moratorium on nuclear testing since 1998. And it will be impossible for either one of them to renew nuclear testing without being subjected to a tsunami of global condemnation. More importantly, both countries do not even need to continue expanding their nuclear arsenals or fissile material capabilities since their existing nuclear capabilities are sufficient to maintain a credible deterrent.

Against this backdrop, the best course of action for both countries is to ratify the CTBT and send out a message to the global community that we are ready to play our role towards our shared goal of a world without nuclear weapons. The nuclear establishment of Pakistan and India need to enhance their out-of-box thinking skills and understand that ratifying a permanent ban on nuclear testing would, in fact, advance their national security interests.

In order to make real progress towards enforcing the CTBT, the US should be the first country to ratify the treaty. Such a step would not only make it more difficult for the other seven Annex-II states to delay their own ratification processes, but will also rekindle the global nuclear disarmament momentum. As George Shultz, a former US secretary of state, states: “senators might have been right voting against the CTBT some years ago, but they would be right voting for it now”.

The Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program enables the US to ensure the effectiveness of its nuclear arsenal without resorting to nuclear-explosion testing. A treaty that is in force will also decrease military reliance on nuclear weapons and thereby reduce the risk of nuclear war.

The greatest challenge for CTBTO youth members and disarmament activists in the coming months and years is to make nuclear testing a matter of urgent public concern and shape public opinion in favour of the CTBT. We need to drive home the message that it is in the long-term national security interest of all nations to ratify the treaty. With concerted efforts on multiple fronts, we will be able to accomplish this goal.