The End of Nuclear Testing?

Rose Gottemoeller
Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security 
Fairbanks, Alaska
October 19, 2015

Thank you, Rich, for the introduction and thanks to Dr. Curt Szuberla and team for the International Monitoring System tour this morning. I’m so pleased to be here in Fairbanks.

As was mentioned, I am the State Department lead for arms control and nonproliferation. While it keeps me very busy, I understand that most people don’t spend a lot of time worrying about “the bomb”. This is particularly true when our country faces challenges from cyber threats, climate change and the ideological extremism of terrorist groups like ISIL.

When the Cold War ended, the threat of nuclear war seemed to drift away from us. After all, when was the last time you even heard of someone doing a duck-and-cover drill against a nuclear attack? Unfortunately, there are still thousands and thousands of nuclear weapons in the world. The threat from these weapons is real and in fact, it may have increased due to the risk of terrorists seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.

It was 32 years ago that President Ronald Reagan pronounced clearly and with conviction that “there can be only one policy for preserving our precious civilization in this modern age. A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”

President Reagan led the United States in pursuing serious nuclear arms reductions. President Obama took up this mantle and laid out his own long-term vision for the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons, coupled with practical steps for achieving this vision. He outlined this vision six years ago in a speech in Prague. In it, the President laid out a comprehensive agenda to reduce the nuclear threat. Today, I would like to speak with you about a particular piece of that agenda, which has been in the making for over fifty years: the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). But before I talk about the end of nuclear testing, let me talk about the beginning.

Over 2,000 nuclear explosive tests have taken place around the world over the last 70 years, about a quarter of which were tested in the atmosphere. The United States conducted about 1,000 of those nuclear explosive tests, with around 100 conducted in the atmosphere. These atmospheric or above-ground tests, the purpose of which was to further improve the effectiveness, safety and security of our nuclear deterrent, had the consequence of distributing radioactive fallout downwind from the site.

Over time, radioactive and cancer-causing particles, such as Strontium-90, found their way into milk and other products, eventually ending up in the bones of children. Beyond the multiple radioactive “hotspots” in Utah, which was downwind of the main testing site in Nevada, hotspots were detected throughout the West and as far away as the East Coast.

Growing public concern about the dangers of nuclear explosive testing collided with a turning point in history – the Cuban Missile Crisis. As an important step leading us back from the brink of nuclear war, President John F. Kennedy called for a complete ban on nuclear explosive testing in 1963.

“The conclusion of such a treaty,” he said, “so near and yet so far -- would check the spiraling arms race in one of its most dangerous areas. It would place the nuclear powers in a position to deal more effectively with one of the greatest hazards which man faces in 1963 -- the further spread of nuclear arms. It would increase our security -- it would decrease the prospects of war.”

We were able to achieve part of this objective through the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) – banning tests in the water, in space and in the atmosphere. This tempered the problem of radioactive particles in baby milk, but did not complete the work. At that time, we could not reach agreement on banning underground nuclear explosive testing, as we lacked the technology to accurately detect such tests. Underground testing continued here in the United States and around the world.

Did you know the United States conducted some of those underground nuclear tests here in Alaska? The series of tests occurred on Amchitka Island on October 29, 1965; October 2, 1969; and November 6, 1971. Impact on the local environment was substantial, with significant uptake of radioactive particles in the food chain, especially in the lichens that provide food for caribou.

Despite challenges through the years, we did not give up on the effort to end testing. Through steady work and persistence, we developed the tools we would need to verify the 1976 Threshold Test-Ban Treaty (TTBT), which finally entered into force in 1990. This treaty limited the explosive yield of underground nuclear tests. By that time, nuclear weapons states started to establish moratoria on testing, strengthening the global norm against the practice. President George H.W. Bush declared a moratorium on U.S. nuclear explosive testing in 1992. In this century, only one country on Earth – North Korea – has conducted nuclear explosive testing. It is clear that a moratorium is not enough; we need a legally-binding total ban on nuclear explosive testing to bring to account countries who insist on testing.

That is where the CTBT comes into play.

What is the CTBT?

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) is a legally binding global ban on nuclear explosions of any kind, anywhere. It was opened for signature in September 1996 and President Bill Clinton was the first world leader to sign the Treaty, though the United States has yet to ratify the Treaty. Today, 183 nations have signed the Treaty and 164 have ratified it.

How Does the CTBT Work?

The CTBT bans all nuclear explosive testing, and puts in place a monitoring and verification system, so we will we know if someone is cheating. The key to the Treaty’s verification is an intricate, multi-faceted network of detection devices that circle the globe, called the International Monitoring System (IMS). The system’s data will be collected and analyzed by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna, Austria. If an ambiguous event were detected by the IMS, Treaty members can request an “on-site inspection” in order to assess the situation from the ground. The United States and other countries also have their own verification capabilities to help detect nuclear explosions. Alaska hosts 6 different IMS stations, including an infrasound station at UA Fairbanks. I went to see it this morning and it is impressive!

Why is the CTBT Important?

So why should the United States be interested in this Treaty? Plain and simple, the CTBT is good for U.S. and international security. It is a key to leading nuclear weapons states toward a world of diminished reliance on nuclear weapons and reduced likelihood of nuclear arms races.

An in-force CTBT will make it difficult for states without nuclear weapons to develop advanced nuclear weapons capabilities.

States interested in pursuing or advancing a nuclear weapons program would have to either risk deploying weapons without the confidence that they would work properly, or accept the international condemnation and reprisals that would follow a nuclear explosive test.

An in-force Treaty would also make it hard for states with more established nuclear weapon programs to develop advanced nuclear weapon designs that they have not tested successfully in the past.

Because of this, an in-force CTBT helps to constrain regional arms races. These constraints are particularly important in Asia, where states are building up and modernizing nuclear forces.

What Happens Now?

With the national security benefits of the Treaty in mind, President Obama called for the ratification and entry into force of the CTBT in his 2009 Prague speech.

Although the United States signed the CTBT in 1996, the Senate in 1999 failed to give its advice and consent to ratification. At that time, two main issues concerned the Senators: our ability to maintain the nuclear stockpile without explosive testing and our ability to verify compliance with the Treaty.

Today the situation is entirely different.

Our science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP), run by the Department of Energy, is ensuring that we do not need to conduct nuclear explosive tests in order to ensure the safety, security and effectiveness of the nuclear weapons we still maintain. This month marks the 20th anniversary of this program of experimental, diagnostic and supercomputing capabilities that allows us to model and simulate nuclear devices without testing. In fact, thanks to stockpile stewardship, we actually understand more about how nuclear weapons work now than we did during the period of nuclear explosive testing. The program allows us to ensure that as we pursue nuclear disarmament, we will still be able to maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal, for as long as nuclear weapons exist.

The ability to monitor and verify compliance with the CTBT is also stronger than it has ever been. The International Monitoring System (IMS), the heart of the verification regime, was just a concept two decades ago. Today, it is nearly complete and it can detect even relatively low-yield nuclear explosions.

My boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, has called the IMS one of the great accomplishments of the modern world. In addition to its verification role, the IMS has also proven its ability to contribute critical scientific data on earthquakes, tsunamis and radioactivity from nuclear reactor accidents.

The on-site inspection element of the CTBT verification regime has advanced significantly, as well. Last December, I was fortunate enough to be an observer at the Integrated Field Exercise sponsored by the CTBT Organization and hosted by Jordan. Seeing first-hand the formidable technology and expertise the international community can bring together to investigate the site of a suspected nuclear explosion was amazing.

Beyond the technical advancements related to the treaty, U.S. ratification will help enhance our leadership role in arms control and nonproliferation and strengthen our hand in pursuing tough actions against suspected proliferators. That is more important than ever, in our current global environment. Nuclear security is a preeminent goal for this Administration.

All told, it is in our interest to close the door on nuclear explosive testing forever.

What Can the Public Do?

Despite the strong merits of the Treaty, it remains, as President Kennedy said 52 years ago, “so near and yet so far.” Since CTBT is not exactly a trending topic on Twitter, we are working to educate the public and Congress to build support for U.S. ratification.

We also need to connect the CTBT to the human reality of the dangers of explosive nuclear testing. I have seen this first-hand. My travels have taken me to the Marshall Islands to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the U.S. “Castle Bravo” hydrogen bomb test detonated on Bikini Atoll. The test was more powerful than expected and radioactive fallout contaminated nearby islands. I met with people whose family members died or suffered health problems, as a result of this test. They explained to me how entire communities were displaced from their homes and have yet to return, even today.

I have visited Utah several times and will go back again next week. The location of Utah, downwind of the former U.S. test site, has led to long-term damage to people, land and livestock. I met farmers who talked about their family’s entire flock of sheep dying in the night, only to have family members develop cancers in the following years. I’ve seen the same thing in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, where the Soviet Union conducted their nuclear explosive tests. I have also visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki and heard from atomic bomb survivors. Their stories are a critically important reminder that all nations should avoid the horrors of nuclear war.

For all of these people, the CTBT is not just a piece of paper, it is a guarantee that no one will have to experience what they have experienced. It is their stories, grouped with the demonstrable security benefits of the Treaty, our safeguards against cheating, and the fact that we no longer need to test, that make the case for the CTBT clear and convincing.

How can people in Alaska help? With regard to the CTBT, it is pretty simple. You need to know what this Treaty is and why it matters, to help educate your friends, your family and your community on the reasons that the Treaty is good for America.

Back in Washington, we are focused on an open dialogue, rather than a timeline, to re-familiarize Senators with the Treaty. Ratification of the CTBT will require debate, discussion, questions, briefings, trips to the National Labs and other technical facilities, hearings and more, as was the case with the New START Treaty. The Senators should have every opportunity to ask questions – many, many questions – until they are satisfied. That is how good policy is made and that is how treaties get across the finish line.

We are confident that we have a good case to make. As former Reagan-era Secretary of State George Shultz said, “Senators might have been right voting against the CTBT some years ago, but they would be right voting for it now.”

I don’t think it will be easy, but that doesn’t matter. An in-force CTBT will benefit the United States and indeed, the whole world. We will keep pushing and with your help, we can succeed.

Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.