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US seeks to ensure continued moratorium on nuclear tests

6 October 2016
But ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty eludes the Obama administration.

The United Nations (UN) Security Council and the five declared nuclear weapons states have recommitted to a continued suspension of nuclear testing, and they pledged to work to bring the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) into force. The Security Council resolution, adopted on 23 September, called upon all nations to refrain from testing and commended its five permanent members (P5)—China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US—for continuing their moratoria. The resolution builds on a nearly identical declaration issued by the P5 on 15 September, days after North Korea conducted an underground test of a nuclear device.

In remarks to the Security Council, US secretary of state John Kerry said the resolution “reaffirms the de facto norm—I emphasize, a norm—in the world today against nuclear testing. It acknowledges the legitimate interests of states that fully and faithfully renounce nuclear weapons to receive assurances against the use or the threat of the use of nuclear weapons, and that those assurances will be upheld.” At the same time, Kerry said, the resolution doesn’t impose a legal prohibition on testing.

US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the UN Security Council on 23 September. Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias
US secretary of state John Kerry addresses the United Nations Security Council on 23 September. Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias

The UN resolution notes that 166 nations have ratified the CTBT, including three of the P5—France, Russia, and the UK. The US was the first to sign the treaty in 1996, but the Senate rejected it in 1999 (see Physics Today, November 1999, page 53). Thirty-six of the 44 nations whose ratification is prerequisite to the treaty’s enactment—the so-called Annex 2 states—have signed on. That leaves Iran and Egypt, along with the US, China, and the other undeclared nuclear states—India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan—as the countries holding up adoption. Each of the P5 nations has long observed moratoria on testing. China was the last to conduct a test, in 1996. The US has not tested a nuclear device since 1992.

Speaking at a Capitol Hill event on 13 September, Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, stressed that the UN resolution “is in no way … a substitute for entry into force of the treaty.” She insisted that the resolution proposal was never intended to skirt Senate ratification of the CTBT, as some news reports had implied. “We have been throughout the negotiations very focused on ensuring that the constitutional prerogatives of the Senate are protected,” she said.

One reason for the resolution, Gottemoeller said, is to blunt last month’s effort by representatives of 107 nations to organize a UN conference next year to negotiate a global ban on nuclear weapons. The US, which opposes such negotiations, doesn’t see them “as a practical step along the road to nuclear disarmament,” she said. “It’s simply not a pragmatic, practical way to proceed.”

Kerry noted that the detection of the recent North Korean test demonstrated the effectiveness of the largely US-funded international monitoring system put in place by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization. He said the test “is a challenge and a direct threat to international stability and peace” and “a dangerous and reckless act of provocation.”

The lack of a reliable international monitoring system was a significant factor in the CTBT’s defeat in the Senate in 1999. Kerry said the administration was continuing to educate senators, including many who weren’t in office 17 years ago, about the technological advances that have made it highly unlikely that an underground test could go undetected.

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