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What Would It Take To Finally Ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty?

Trick question, perhaps.
Castle Bravo blast. Image: Wiki

Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996. Eventually, he was joined by leaders in 183 nations, all pledging to ban any and all nuclear explosions in any and all environments. Nearly 20 years later, the treaty has to go into effect.

The reason is that there are still eight nations that have signed but not formally ratified the treaty (and a few, like North Korea and India, that have done neither). In the US, for example, the president has the power to sign a treaty, but it falls to the Senate to ratify it with a two-thirds vote, making it legal. The Senate rejected the CTBT in a largely party-line vote in 1999—the first such rejection of a security-related treaty since 1919's Treaty of Versailles—and so it languishes.


In the (long) interim, anti-weapons testing efforts are being channeled through the CTBTO Preparatory Commission, which administers a vast global network of nuke sniffing and listening stations.

The US Department of Energy is putting a renewed emphasis on CTBT ratification, however. On Oct. 21 it hosted a half-day symposium in Washington DC to lay out, "a new narrative frame about the end of nuclear testing," writes Hugh Gusterson, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It culminated with a speech by Secretary of State John Kerry in which he announced the administration's desire to "re-open and re-energize the conversation" about the CTBT.

The more concrete goal of the meeting, Gusterson explains, was to discuss the United States "stockpile stewardship program." This is the thing that was supposed to replace nuclear weapons testing in the US: "Now twenty years old, the stockpile stewardship program is designed to maintain the reliability of US nuclear weapons in the absence of testing," he writes. "It uses supercomputers, lasers, and other experimental capabilities to model nuclear weapons performance, maintain an aging arsenal, and train a new generation of weapons scientists."

The symposium's underlying narrative was "strikingly revisionist," Gusterson argues, and represents a novel approach to CTBT ratification, one largely premised on right-wing appeasement. One of the ideas advanced by the speakers is the notion that the CTBT represents a strategic victory for the US, as it freezes weapons development at a time when the country leads the world in nuclear weapons technology. Another idea pushed at the meeting is that the Senate's 1999 rejection might be viewed not as typical right-wing dipshittery, but instead as prudent caution in the face of a then unproven stockpile stewardship program.

All of this would seem set the stage for a new attempt at ratification, and yet the American right-wing in 2015 makes the 1999 version look like a bunch of Gandhis. We'd be lucky enough to keep President Ben Carson from hitting the red button in a nationalistic stupor, let alone formalizing an end to nuclear weapons testing.

Since the first test at New Mexico's White Sands range in 1945, at least eight nations have detonated at least 2,035 nuclear weapons. The most recent tests have taken place in North Korea, which has likewise rejected or ignored CTBT efforts.