Page van der LindenSecrets in the Sand

Part I in a multi-part series on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

In 1996, as soon as it was published, I read Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, by Richard Rhodes. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in an example of how the invention of a weapon of extraordinary power can irreversibly change how the human race views itself, interacts with its different sub-groups, and most of all, how it uses intimidation as a tool of statecraft.

This intimidation was something we could capture on film, in fact, and in eyewitness accounts. I’m talking about nuclear weapons testing; for example, Rhodes quotes the following in his book:

Ivy Mike fireballIvy Mike mushroom cloud

"Ivy Mike" nuclear test. The fireball (top photo) was 3.25 miles wide; the mushroom cloud (bottom photo) was 100 miles across. Click photos to enlarge.*

I was stunned. I mean, it was big. I’d been trying to visualize what it was going to be like, and I’d worked out a way to calibrate the shot. The initial fireball I guess I calibrated by holding up a quarter. If the quarter would cover the fireball then the yield would be less than something; if the fireball were bigger than the quarter, then it would be more than something. The question was, looking through my dark glasses, could I cover the fireball with a quarter. And I couldn’t, so I knew it was big. As soon as I dared, I whipped off my dark glasses, and the thing was enormous, bigger than I’d ever imagined it would be. It looked as though it blotted out the whole horizon, and I was standing on the deck of the Estes, thirty miles away.

— Los Alamos radiochemist George Cowan, describing the first thermonuclear (hydrogen bomb) test “Ivy Mike”.

The test was also detailed decades earlier, in the April 26,1954 edition of Time magazine, describing to the public that the Ivy Mike test took place on Elugelab Island, Enewetak Atoll. It left behind a tremendous hole in the atoll, as well as a shower of radioactive fallout (see here for geographic distribution, and here for naval personnel exposure).

About forty years after the thermonuclear weapons tests were conducted in the Pacific Proving Grounds, I was working as a radiochemist in one of the Department of Energy’s oldest laboratories at the Hanford Site, in Washington State. One day, I looked up at a shelf in our lab and saw a set of Nalgene® bottles with soil in them. I reached up, grabbed one, and looked at the label. It said “ENEWETAK.” Another bottled was labeled “BIKINI.” Yet another bottle’s label said “RONGELAP,” and so on. They were all soil samples from atolls at the US Pacific Proving Grounds, meant for a fallout study of the 106 nuclear tests conducted between 1946 and 1962. I was holding a bit of history in my gloved hand — and more than the tank waste or spent fuel sludge I was working with, those bottles full of soil samples made pre-1963 Cold War nuclear testing something tangible and real to me.

All of this is to say that nuclear weapons testing has more than profound geopolitical effects: it had environmental effects as well, and this should be obvious. Yet renewed testing has been the subject of idle, theoretical discussion in recent years, regardless of any effects it may have.

In recent months, Obama administration officials have revived a topic that hasn’t been discussed in much depth for eleven years. They have begun discussing the US Senate’s debate, and the final vote on, the resolution to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Speeches have been given indicating that an educational process should be involved, not just for the Senate, but for the public at large. After all, nuclear testing is not a subject that comes up every day. And, as in the 1990s, lines are being drawn in the sand between the pro- and anti-ratificiation camps, with many reasons being given by each side why they feel the way they do about the treaty.

Thus, I have decided to write a series of pieces on the CTBT, presenting the treaty from the points of view of people who were around the last time it went through — and failed to pass — the Senate. The national security community is rich with distinguished personages who not only enjoy being interviewed, but are rationally, passionately, and calmly able to explain their points of view in a way that at least I have found educational, not just as the interviewer, but as a listener.

The following are excerpts from interviews I did with Ambassador Linton Brooks, former under-secretary of nuclear security, administrator of the NNSA, and chief negotiator on START I, and Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association. My questions are in italic boldface; their replies follow.

Part I: Linton Brooks weighs the costs of ratification

All of this recent focus on the CTBT reminded me of an article I saw two years ago, in a Utah paper, describing your changing views regarding the treaty. In 1999, you opposed treaty ratification. A decade later, you no longer oppose ratification. Could you go into some detail about that?

In the ’90s, I was very concerned about the maintenance of the stockpile without testing. And I think that the experience over the whole period since the end of testing, but particularly over the last year has suggested that stockpile stewardship has been effective in maintaining the stockpile. There have been external looks by JASON that suggest that our current approach is workable, and the 2002 NAS study basically says the same thing. I am part of the National Academy update that is allegedly going to be published maybe early Fall. I don’t want to comment on the details of that report because we don’t talk about it until it’s done.

But I think that stockpile stewardship has proven that it works. I also think that to some extent ratification is [cost] free, at least from the standpoint of maintaining the current stockpile.

And what I mean by that is the political bar against testing is so high right now that you would have to have a very, very major problem to get over that bar, and if you had a problem at that level, then you would have the “supreme national interests clause” and I think that it’s very hard to conceive of a problem that is big enough so that we would overcome the political bar against testing, but too small to overcome the bar against withdrawal.

Further, it’s not easy to postulate a problem in the stockpile for which testing is a necessary fix. In particular, you would have to have a problem in the stockpile essentially that affected the W76, the Trident warhead. With anything else, there’s enough of a backup. But the W76, if there were a problem, I think — and somebody thought testing was necessary — I think there would be the political support for it, and if there was, there’d be the support for withdrawal.

So it seems to me that from the standpoint of the stockpile, I think that there’s no risk to the United States from ratification. Now, I don’t know whether there are any benefits from ratification. The argument is two-fold:

One argument is that if we ratify, it enhances our non-proliferation credentials and then other states will be more willing to cooperate on things like the Additional Protocol. I think that assumes what lawyers would call “facts not in evidence”. It may be true, it sounds right, but we’re pretty short on evidence in terms of any way to verify that. It is certainly true that international non-proliferation bureaucrats often say they aren’t doing things because we aren’t meeting our Article VI Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. But I think we lack a solid understanding of whether it’s right.

The other thing that people say is that a US ratification can lead to entry into force sooner or later. And you have to walk through country by country — I think most people I talk to believe that it’s just barely possible to see everybody but North Korea ratifying, and if only North Korea were left, I think people argue that it would be possible to do provisional implementation, although the treaty does not explicitly provide for that.

So you can see a path, but it’s very difficult path, and it’s complicated by the fact that nobody really knows what the new Egyptian government is going to be like. So I think that the people who say “US ratification won’t bring the treaty into force,” probably have a point, and my argument is, “but it won’t hurt, and it won’t hurt the United States, and the benefits may be small; they may either be non-existent, but ratification captures those.”

So I think technically it’s probably more accurate to characterize my change of heart not as huge enthusiasm for the benefits of US ratification, but a belief that the costs are essentially non-existent.

One of the main things on which people may have to be educated is the confusion regarding the purpose of nuclear weapon testing. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the only reason you test a weapon is when it is a brand new design, and you detonate it to gather data and to make sure it works. Is that correct?

I think that’s right. I mean, we did do so-called “stockpile confidence tests”, where we pulled a weapon from the stockpile and made it go “bang”, but we never did enough of them for any statistical validity, so all it proved was that that particular weapon worked.

And I think that’s a misunderstanding of the way we used testing. We used testing primarily as science experiments, to make sure the concepts worked, and the new weapons worked, and I think that since we’re not doing new weapons, the tools of stewardship are good enough to tieback. Now, there are people, Steve Younger, for example, has recently been quoted in a National Institute of Public Policy study, as saying that he no longer believes you can maintain the stockpile indefinitely without testing. Paul Robinson has always thought that. So there are two people who have real credibility in the weapons community. I think the current laboratory leadership tends to basically say, “wait a minute, we’ve been living under this for almost 20 years, and we have every expectation of living under it forever. What you guys do voting or not voting doesn’t look like it’s going to change,” and I think that at least the people I talk to tend to say that if the question were going back to the kind of test program we used to have, I think many people would see a benefit to that.

If the question is one or two tests, I think that’s less clear, and I think you have to look at a completely transformed world to believe that there would be the political support for resuming testing on a regular basis. I mean, it’s hard enough to convince yourself that you could do a test if you actually thought you had a problem.

One of the biggest things I am told by the computer scientists, is that the supercomputers at the labs are so much more advanced than they were, say, 10 years ago, at nuclear test simulations. What are your thoughts on that?

Oh yes. I mean, when they first started stockpile stewardship, and they talked [about computational power] increasing by a factor of a million, they’ve more than done that. And I think that — now, you’ve got to be a little careful. Computers manipulate data; they don’t create data, and that’s why if you say you’re going to stick to designs that are well-understood, I think that simulation is more than adequate to let us adjust things as we refurbish.

I think where you will get a legitimate technical debate, unfortunately, the details of which are not easily put into the public domain, there are safety and security improvements that you could conceive of, that some people think would depart from current designs enough to require testing. Thus far, we’re not pursuing anything that anybody thinks will require testing, but if you believe that we need in the future a fundamentally different kind of weapon, either because there’s a military need for something radically different, or because there are new safety or security features, if you believe that that’s the future, then you might have an argument to say, well, we will want to preserve the option to test that…

On the other hand, 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.

So once again, you’re back to the question of: are you giving up anything in the US weapons area from ratification?

Part II: Daryl Kimball discusses the CTBT and the view from The Hill

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher recently gave a talk at the Arms Control Association Annual Meeting. One of the things she emphasized when discussing the CTBT was that thanks to all the work on New START last year, people are now more familiar with nuclear weapons treaties, and we therefore have momentum for educating the public and educating Senators on the national security benefits of ratifying the CTBT.

The question is, how does one educate the public, and make sure that our lawmakers understand what the treaty means and how it works?

I think the process of dealing with the Test Ban Treaty will require similar efforts [comparable to New START education]. It’s going to take time; many people don’t really understand that we stopped nuclear testing nearly 20 years ago, and there’s a treaty that bans all nuclear test explosions but we haven’t yet ratified it. So the first portion of the exercise is going to be to go through those issues, address some of the myths and misconceptions that may still linger in the minds of the Congress and the public, including the fact that nuclear weapons testing is not needed, nor has it really ever been used, to confirm the reliability of previously proven warhead designs. This is not how, through the course of the nuclear age, we tested the reliability of the arsenal. So it’s a myth to think that, just because we can’t explode nuclear devices in the desert, we can’t maintain the existing arsenal.

Regarding parliamentary procedure, hearings, etcetera, is the CTBT ready to go? Is it on the books and ready to be debated in the Senate?

Well, yes and no. The treaty and all of the associated documentation — the article by article analysis, plus the five reports on the treaty, all that was transmitted to the Senate in September of 1997. Now, it was brought before the Senate by unanimous consent agreements, in October of 1999, and voted on rather quickly after a rushed round of hearings were held.

But then even after the the Senate refused to give its advice and consent to ratification, it remains on the executive calendar of the Senate. So the treaty does not have to be re-submitted technically, but for all practical purposes, there does have to be another round of hearings in all the relevant committees, and there has to be new information delivered to the Hill to answer their questions.

So essentially that’s what Tauscher was alluding to, that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about the “new information” that has become available in the decade since the treaty was voted on, that the Senate needs to take another look at. Specifically, the new studies that have been done include a new National Intelligence Estimate on the verifiability of the test ban treaty, there is a new Joint Chiefs of Staff report relating to the treaty, there’s a new State Department assessment on the treaty, and then in addition to all that, there is the National Academy of Sciences report that was requested by the executive branch. It is done. It’s in a classified form. It is going through the declassification process, but the report is done.

So, there’s a lot of reading that Senators and their staff have before them that reevaluates the issues and that were at the core of the 1999 debate. We think that the evidence is very persuasive in favor of the treaty, and that the questions the Senators had back in 1999 have been addressed.

What are you hearing on the Hill, and what are the prospects for approval of the treaty resolution of ratification? When do you think the CTBT will come up for a formal vote in the Senate?

This question was asked at an ACA meeting, it was asked of Ellen Tauscher, it was asked of Senator Casey when he spoke about this.

The answer is difficult because there hasn’t been serious discussion, let alone debate, about the CTBT, in over a decade. There’s no one who can give you a firm head count because in the Senate we’re at the beginning of a treaty engagement and education process that could take quite some time. The New START treaty took two years from start to finish. Even as the treaty was being negotiated, the administration was talking to people on Capitol Hill, and it took almost a year from the time that the treaty was signed to the time that it formally entered into force. And that was just a bilateral treaty. So this process could take a similar amount of time, and if it takes a similar amount of time, that means that we’re looking at beyond the November 2012 election.

The beginning of the process, and what’s important is that Senators take a look at the new information on the International Monitoring System [map, historical information] on verification and monitoring, and the value of the treaty for US nonproliferation efforts before jumping to conclusions, because the worse thing would be for Democrats or Republicans to make a decision based upon politics and based upon 20th century [out-dated] information.

There’s new kinds of monitoring technologies, there are more civilian seismic stations in the the world than before, we have incredible new computational capacity at the weapons labs; we know more about plutonium than we ever did, and a lot of the concerns about its aging have been addressed. The Stockpile Stewardship Program [SSP] itself is 10 years beyond, and has proven itself capable of overcoming difficulties.

People need to make decisions based upon what they know now.

Taking both Brooks’ and Kimball’s answers and applying them to how the treaty will be discussed in Washington, I can guarantee that the arguments offered by at least some of the Senate treaty opponents in committee and on the Senate floor will be based upon information from ten years ago. It’s easy to get confused, and/or deliberately confuse one’s colleagues in the name of defeating something you don’t want. Hopefully the “education efforts” as well as Ambassador Brooks’ reasoning will prevail. We won’t know for a long time, obviously, but it’ll be a contentious discussion when they do get to that point on the Hill.

Part III is an interview with a CTBT skeptic. Click here to read it.


  1. yousaf (History)

    General Shalikashvili had an excellent report on the pros and cons of CTBT some years ago — the case is only stronger now:

  2. Nichol (History)

    Funny to read these arguments .. being dutch, they seem like the internal regurgitatings of a superpower. Nothing about the risks of future proliferation. What will happen if the world just continues to slowly get more and more countries with nuclear weapons. But, of course: it is about the US Congress, lulling itself into the belief that the present state of affairs is permanent.. It isn’t. And a superpower insisting on its right to play with its nuclear toys isn’t a strong argument for others not to want those same toys.

    The proliferation problem is also one of the strongest arguments against nuclear power, as a serious energy solution for the ‘rest’ of the world. That is only underlined by the fact that there is no political progress on proliferation. Even the opposite.

    .. I’m curious to read the arguments from the CTBT skeptic, and his/her ideas to prevent long-term proliferation other than just trust on US superpower to police the world.