Page van der LindenDebating the CTBT in 2011

View of infrasound station array at infrasound station IS49, Tristan da Cunha, U.K.

Monitoring for nuclear tests: an IMS infrasound station array at infrasound station IS49, Tristan da Cunha, U.K. (Image Credit: CTBTO Preparatory Commission. Click to enlarge.)

Two weeks ago, I noticed that the conversation about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) seemed to be picking up the pace. This was among people on the Hill, so I set about interviewing several policy analysts, essentially non-governmental “onlookers,” who’d been around for the Senate debate — and failure — to approve the resolution of ratification in 1999. I talked to a range of people, from enthusiastic treaty proponents and people who think ratification won’t do any harm, to a treaty skeptic, whose opinion was that the treaty would endanger national security and that we need to retain the option of testing nuclear weapons.

The Mushroom Cloud On The Horizon: Talking About the CTBT Then and Now

There’s a lot that can be learned from these interviews. What’s interesting is that the United States has been trying — in various contexts, with various results — to ban nuclear tests since 1958. For example, President Eisenhower sent a letter to Chairman Nikita Krushchev referring to ongoing nuclear test ban negotiations in Geneva, saying:

The United States strongly seeks a lasting agreement for the discontinuance of nuclear weapons tests. We believe that this would be an important step toward reduction of international tensions and would open the way to further agreement on substantial measures of disarmament.


If you are prepared to change your present position on the veto, on procedures for on-site inspection, and on early discussion of concrete measures for high altitude detection, we can of course proceed promptly in the hope of concluding the negotiation of a comprehensive agreement for suspension of nuclear weapons tests.

This quote struck me, because it mirrors much of the committee and actual Senate CTBT floor debate in 1999 (click here for an example); it also should be noted that we’ve been talking about banning nuclear tests for over half a century. And it’s not hopeless: we got partway there with the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the Threshold Test Ban Treaty in 1974, and the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty in 1976 (see Pierce Corden’s excellent summary here). But the skeptics still retain views from 1999, and would have us believe that it is hopeless; that the treaty is “weak”, that someone will cheat and we won’t be able to verify it, and that, despite all evidence to the contrary, our efforts to maintain a highly functional stockpile just aren’t enough, and we need to test one or two of those weapons periodically.

Well, when I interviewed Linton Brooks about current and past presidential administrations’ attitudes toward nuclear testing, he said:

I go back to my point that I frankly think that if the labs walked into the Oval Office and said “you know, we can change something that is already one of the safest devices ever made to be somewhat more safer, and all we’ll need is three tests,” they’d get laughed at. There’s no political will for that.

But what it really comes down to at this point is: what are the administration’s arms control gurus thinking, and what do they plan and predict for the future? It’s 2011, not 1999, and a lot of things have changed.

With those questions (and others) on my mind, I interviewed Rose Gottemoeller, the Assistant Secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. As a reminder, Assistant Secretary Gottemoeller was the chief negotiator of the New START treaty; previously, she was with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she was a senior associate in the Carnegie Russia and Eurasia Program. She was also Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. In the 1990s, Ms. Gottemoeller held several positions within the Department of Energy, including Deputy Undersecretary of Energy for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation. In other words, she’s more than familiar with the importance of the CTBT and the path it has taken over the years.

As with the previous interviews, my questions are in italic boldface; Assistant Secretary Gottemoeller’s replies follow. I have inserted hyperlinks as references wherever they might be needed.

I’d like to start with a question about education. There has been talk recently, specifically by Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher when she spoke at the Arms Control Association Meeting (and a few other people) that there’s going to be an education campaign to make sure the Senate knows exactly what’s going on with the CTBT: what it limits, how it works, all the specifics.

My question is, has the education effort begun yet or not?

Yes, it has, and I’ll just mention that I prefer to consider it like an information exchange rather than an education campaign. I know that term has been used by a number of folks, including by Ellen, but I tend to emphasize that this is a serious discussion, and an exchange of information, and that we are really working to get the facts out as we see them and to help people to absorb them and understand them.

So it’s really like an information campaign and a discussion. The reason I emphasize the discussion aspect of it is that clearly this is a debate, and it’s not like one side telling the other, and the other side is just in the “receive” mode. But it is more like a true discussion and debate, and I think that’s the way people are going to come to their decisions about the treaty, through that process of very serious discussion and debate, and seeing the facts, and coming to understand them.

That makes sense. So Senator X can say “well, I think it’s this,” and whoever is talking to them can “well, actually, no, in this Article, it says this…”

Well, it’s a very technical treaty, and the aspects associated with it are very technical, so it helps to really try to dig down deep on some of the technical issues, and discuss all aspects. So, as I said, I really think of it as a serious discussion and exchange.

So do you have tech people talking to the Senators?

At this point, we’re in early days, and we’ve just begun some discussions overall, and also, just so you know, we’re definitely talking about our broader arms control agenda at the same time. For example, you know the New START treaty implementation is going very, very well, and so, you know, I’m spending time on Capitol Hill talking about the broad agenda, and within that context, talking about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and as I said, bringing information to the attention of the people who are going to have to analyze it, and think it through, and make their decisions.

Speaking of people talking about it on the Hill, it hasn’t just been you and some other State Department people; there’s been more general chatter. I’m wondering if there’s something specific that triggered the chatter, like something in the upcoming National Academy of Science report or the new National Intelligence Estimate — are there surprises in any of these documents, or is this just part of a series of scheduled arms control talks that you and others were planning to do anyway?

No, I think the President has made no secret that ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is one of his priority goals for his arms control agenda. He mentioned that as part of the Prague speech way back in April of 2009. So, once the START treaty negotiations were concluded, and the ratification process was completed and the START treaty entered into force and began its implementation, naturally I think people turned their attention to “what’s next?” and of course CTBT is out there as a priority goal of the President.

The President said something very important about it, though, and that is, we’re not going to set any deadlines for ratification, and I’ve been trying to emphasize that as I’ve been talking to folks on Capitol Hill, to say, we’re not rushing into this. We’re playing this as a long game, and really want to have that serious discussion and debate, and to get all the fact in front of the responsible figures: the Senators, the members and their staffs who are going to have to absorb and understand what all the issues are.

So that’s how we’re thinking about it. But I think that, you know, it’s inevitable, once you finish a big project, you turn around and say “what’s next?” and I think that’s what’s happened here. We finished that big project of New START and people looked around and said “what’s next?”

That makes sense. And it’s already on the books, so to speak, [from 1999]. I asked Daryl Kimball the other day if they could just go directly into debate on the Senate floor, and he said no, it’s more complicated than that because of the information issue.

There’s one point I really should emphasize: that is, the last vote on this treaty was in 1999. It’s been over a decade. And really, in all that time, people haven’t had to wrestle with these issues. They haven’t had to think about the Comprehensive Test Ban, they haven’t had to think about all the issues involved in it, and so that’s another important reason why I do think it’s important to have a serious discussion and debate now so that the responsible people on Capitol Hill can do their due diligence, you know, they’re going to want to take some time and have a serious look at all the issues. And so that’s one of the reasons why I say, we’re playing a long game, because it’s been a long time, and a huge number of things have changed since 1999.

You know, back in 1999, the International Monitoring System — IMS — was hardly begun, and now it’s over 85% complete.

And [the IMS sensors have] already begun to serve an important purpose. They were really important in tracking both the radionuclides and also the seismic signals out of the Fukushima disaster. So that is something that’s proving the IMS system’s worth. But again, people don’t realize that if they last looked at this in 1999. They have to understand how much has changed on the verification side. Also, by the way, our own US capabilities, not just international capabilities, have improved. So they’re going to want to take a good look at that.

And the other issue, of course, is the big changes in attitude toward the Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship Program. You know, I was working in DOE back in ’99 — I was the Assistant Secretary there — and I realized at that time, Stockpile Stewardship was in its infancy. But now, you know, over a decade has gone by and our laboratories have seen the value of Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship proven, so that’s a huge, enormous change from 1999. And again, people are going to want to look at all the issues, and understand exactly what has happened, and that’s just going to take some time.

My next question stays in the present as well as looks to the future: as things move along in talking to the Senators, what do you think the hardest part for the skeptics will be to understand and swallow? Will it be verification? Will it be the scope issue? What do you think it’ll be?

Well, it’s very hard to foresee. You never know until you get into a debate exactly what the issues are going to be that come up. I was surprised during New START, for example, that the budget for the Stockpile Stewardship Program and infrastructure modernization came to the floor in quite the way they did. So you can never tell exactly what the items are going to be.

But I do think, judging on the debate that occurred back in 1999, that — and also, by the way, the report that General John Shalikashvili did following — if you haven’t looked at that, that’s a very important report that was done after the vote in 1999. He went around and talked to all the Senators and got their point of view as to why they didn’t want to vote in favor of the treaty. There were two core issues there: the one had to do with verification. The second had to do with peoples’ concerns that the Stockpile Stewardship Program wasn’t going to pay off.

So those are going to be very important core issues, and they get right to the heart of, is this treaty in the national security interest of the United States? Responsible Senators are definitely going to be paying a huge amount of attention to those issues.

[Gen. Shalikashvili’s report] was an excellent snapshot, I would say, of views among the Senate members themselves as that episode came to a close. So it’s very valuable from that point of view. But I definitely agree — George Shultz has said, famously, that those Senators who voted against the treaty in 1999, should feel they have good reasons now to vote for the treaty. Or words to that effect. I’m paraphrasing what he said, but as he puts it, they were right to vote against it, perhaps, in 1999, but they should feel that they are right to vote for it now.

I think that’s the key. People are going to have to feel comfortable that enough has changed on those two key issues now, that it will make the difference.

In general, why is it so hard to get universal adherence to the big, general treaties like this, or the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty? What do we do about that over the long run and in the meantime?

Countries have to believe that treaties serve their security interest, and that is why we enter into them, because we do believe that they serve our national security interests, and we’ve made that calculation ourselves. Sometimes it takes countries a while to come to that conclusion, but when you look at the NPT, that is a treaty that has almost universal adherence around the world, with very few hold-outs on the NPT. It’s very interesting that that whole process took a while. You know, countries like France, for example, it was over a decade from the time that the treaty was open for signature before France came into the treaty.

So I’m very patient on these things. It may take a while for countries to decide that a treaty is in their national security interest. But we just have to continue to prove to them that the treaties are important in that way, that they are real stabilizing factors in the whole international security system.

Further Thoughts

Assistant Secretary Gottemoeller makes some important points. It may seem extremely obvious, but it’s also extremely important: the CTBT has been discussed since 1999, but not as part of a Senate committee or floor debate, and over the past twelve years, a lot of technological advances have been made, and a lot of geopolitical changes have occurred, such as North Korea’s nuclear tests, Iran’s advances with its nuclear program, and quite a few changes in Middle Eastern politics. All of these affect how we approach nuclear nonproliferation issues, and as General Shalikashvili said in his report (bold emphasis mine):

The Test Ban Treaty is not an isolated measure operating in a vacuum. Rather, it is an integral and inseparable part of our national non-proliferation strategy. An effective strategy must include the skillful use of a variety of political, diplomatic, economic, and military responses tailored for particular proliferation problems. This requires meticulous coordination among the relevant Executive Branch agencies, steady bipartisan support from Congress, and close cooperation with other countries. Only the United States has both a compelling reason and the necessary resources to lead global non-proliferation efforts. I believe that U.S. leadership is absolutely essential to success.

The argument over the “scope issue,” i.e. Article I of the CTBT, which forbids any state from carrying out a nuclear explosion, is a bit of a red herring — and it’s recently been mentioned by think tanks and individuals. I predict that we’ll see it again; you might want to refer to the following when someone mentions it.

Dr. Pierce Corden, in an extremely astute comment (scroll down) on my interview with Tom Scheber, a treaty skeptic, said (bold emphasis mine):

The agreed scope of the CTBT: that it bans all nuclear explosions of any yield, however small, is not a least common denominator among the negotiators in the CD. It is the demarcation between prohibited nuclear explosions, and “activities not prohibited,” which include hydrodynamic testing, inertial confinement fusion, fast critical reactors, and other experimental activities involving the release of nuclear energy that the U.S. successfully excluded from the scope of the Treaty. This required delegations that proposed their inclusion to agree to the demarcation. The text of the CTBT’s scope article was negotiated with the text of the LTBT as the basis, and extends the LTBT’s prohibitions on nuclear explosions to everywhere. Thus the agreed scope of the ban is in fact well defined.

Furthermore, if you read Gen. Shalikashvili’s report, or dig into any of the Senate debate, you’ll find that the biggest arguments were about whether or not the Stockpile Stewardship Program would work, and whether or not adequate monitoring and verification were possible, not about the scope issue. This is where that healthy debate and exchange of thoughts with Senators is going to be essential: they’ll need to understand how effective our stockpile stewardship is, our plans and new funding for the accompanying nuclear complex infrastructure, and how extensive the monitoring sensor network is, as well as the exact terms, time limits, etc. laid out in the treaty for verification and inspection.

It’s good to know that this dialogue has already started with our Senators, because it’s a complex subject, and very technical. The better the administration understands their issues with it, and the better the Senators understand the treaty (and are able to put partisan considerations aside), the sooner we can accomplish another historic national security initiative, and ratify the treaty.


  1. yousaf (History)

    In case you haven’t seen it already, you may be interested in a fundamentally new way to detect nuclear tests, even those of low yields, via GPS signals:

    A new way to detect secret nuclear tests: GPS

    By Jihye Park, Dorota A. Grejner-Brzezinska, and Ralph von Frese | 18 August 2011

    Article Highlights

    -North Korea’s second known nuclear bomb test was conducted deep underground and in extreme secrecy.

    -The May 2009 explosion disturbed the ionosphere in a way that could be detected in GPS signals at 11 receivers in the region.

    -GPS could complement other nuclear test detection methods and give the US more reason to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

    • page (History)

      Oh yes, I did see that, even before it was published in BAS. It does seem like it could be yet another way to bolster the network of other monitoring techniques/devices. I wonder how long before it would be possible? How feasible is it? What do you think?

    • yousaf (History)

      It appears to be a robust and sensitive method when used in conjunction with other monitoring. It depends on being able to pick out a sudden increase in electron density by several nearby GPS stations indicative of a test. But there may be other atmospheric sources that mimic such effects so one may run into a needle-in-a-haystack issue, especially for low-yield tests, if the system is used without a trigger. I haven’t delved into it too deeply but it may be worth asking the authors if they believe it will be useful for confirming the findings from other methods, or if they think it may even work by itself.

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