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Tall Tales of the Test Ban Opposition
A Reply to the September 1999 Letter to Senator Lott from Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Opponents

By Christopher E. Paine, senior researcher, NRDC Nuclear Program, October 6, 1999.


Many members of the Senate may have received copies of a letter to Senator Lott, dated September 9, 1999, from 52 CTBT opponents, that was organized by a small pro-nuclear-weapons lobby, the Center for Security Policy. This letter faithfully illustrates the deep policy differences separating a conservative fringe element that has long despised the test ban from the broad majority of Americans, who have always supported it. But the letter also contains egregious factual errors and distortions that could easily mislead undecided Senators, and these should not be allowed to stand uncorrected.


The most glaring weakness of the test ban opponents' letter is its failure to examine carefully -- or even consider -- the wider repercussions of the action it espouses. This is a characteristic failing of ideologues down through the centuries, and it usually culminates in disaster. Rejection of the test ban treaty by the Senate -- coupled with impending or actual resumption of U.S. test explosions -- would trigger renewed nuclear explosive testing by Russia, China, India, and Pakistan. From there, it is impossible to predict where the action-reaction cycle of proliferation might turn next. A full blown nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan would further impoverish and destabilize both countries, with an increasing likelihood of a reactionary Islamic government coming to power in Pakistan, and the possibility that such an isolated, extremist, and impoverished regime would have strong economic and political incentives to share its nuclear technology with a wealthier Islamic fundamentalist state. If such a nuclear threat appeared along the southern littoral of Europe, resumption of testing by France and the United Kingdom would seem inevitable.

Faced with such a threat, Israel would either test openly to demonstrate its deterrent capability, or, as it has in the past, launch a preemptive attack to deprive any hostile power in its region of a nuclear option. Such a catastrophic reversal for the global nonproliferation regime would eviscerate U.S. and allied moral and political standing to mobilize opposition to dangerous future nuclear developments, and thus provide tacit license for future North Korean, Iranian, and Iraqi nuclear tests, and then by potentially at least a half dozen other current non-weapon states having nuclear capabilities and a record of mothballed or abandoned clandestine nuclear weapon programs. This list includes Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Taiwan, China, South Korea, and even, at one time, Sweden. And lest we forget, advanced nuclear non-weapon states -- such as Germany and Japan -- are fully capable of designing and producing nuclear weapons in the event that the Senate commits the colossal blunder of voting down the treaty and sparking the disastrous chain reaction outlined above.

Knowingly or unknowingly, those who would vote down the CTBT are acting in a manner that will facilitate the acquisition of thermonuclear weapons by additional countries and diminish prospects for international stability and the rule of law. They are, in short, adopting a policy that supports and enables nuclear weapons proliferation, and then resorts to military coercion rather than consensus-building diplomacy as the primary means of coping with the consequences. Some test ban opponents are candid enough to acknowledge this. For example, during a Sept. 10 exchange with Senator Dorgan on the Senate floor, Senator Lott praised a recent attack on the test ban by conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. [1]

Krauthammer's column cites the 1998 nuclear weapons tests by India and Pakistan as demonstrating the "obvious inconvenient truth" that nuclear weapons are a "supreme military asset" that "transforms the geopolitical status of the possessor" by conferring "not just aggressive power but, even more important, a deterrent capacity as well." He then endorses this proliferation as a rational response by "lesser nations" who lack America's conventional military strength and "recognize the political and diplomatic power conveyed by nuclear weapons."

"They want the nuclear option," adds Krauthammer, "for good reason." This is dangerous stuff, all the more so because of its endorsement by the majority leader of the Senate, leading one to wonder just what a future Republican Senate and White House would do together to further eviscerate U.S. arms reduction and nonproliferation commitments, thereby unraveling the entire web of global nonproliferation constraints so painstakingly built up over the decades since World War II.

Is this really the outcome that most Republican senators are seeking -- an anarchic world of nuclear garrison states, all furiously engaged in "deterring" each other with "credible" explosive demonstrations of their nuclear firepower?

In the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, and again upon its indefinite extension in May 1995, the United States government has made binding legal and political commitments to pursue negotiations "in good faith" on effective measures to end the nuclear arms race and eliminate nuclear weapons from national arsenals. Foremost among these "effective measures" has been the comprehensive test ban, a goal of both the community of nations and American presidents since 1958.

At the instigation of a bipartisan majority in both houses of Congress, good faith multilateral negotiations undertaken during President Clinton's first term at long last yielded a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996. At no time, during these four years or since, has any resolution or directive passed by the Congress indicated serious disagreement with the course of these negotiations or the specific terms of the treaty. Nor did any significant number of Senate Republicans seek to discourage the President from signing the treaty in September 1996. To suddenly jettison the treaty at this late date would severely damage not only U.S. national security interests but also the security of many other allied and friendly countries.

Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Canada, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Norway, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, South Africa -- indeed virtually the entire community of advanced industrial democracies -- have already ratified the test ban treaty. Torpedoing the test ban will decimate America's standing with the publics and parliaments in these countries, and possibly spark retaliatory boycotts of American goods and services (recall the uproar and boycott of French products that greeted France's final nuclear test series in the Pacific in 1995) Cooperation on a range of trade and export control issues will become much more difficult or even impossible.


Assertion #1: "We believe that the United States will require for the foreseeable future a credible nuclear deterrent. This requirement is one America uniquely faces in light of its need to provide extended deterrence -- a need that has not disappeared with the end of the Cold War and that, if anything, may increase with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction . . ."

Response: Test ban opponents seek to resurrect, and to arrogate "uniquely" to the United States, the now defunct Cold War mission of "extending" nuclear deterrence to other states. On how many countries will the U.S. bestow this new nuclear guarantee, and who will be left out in the cold? How many countries today even want to be "defended" in this manner? What happens to such commitments when the "extended deterrent" fails to deter conflict, as it did in Korea and Vietnam and Afghanistan and Angola? Do we then let fly with nukes?

Just asking these question exposes the essential fallacy of proposals for an American-led nuclear condominium to enforce nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This bizarre fantasy of a new U.S. global nuclear hegemony should be consigned to an ultra-conservative fringe, and should not be allowed to penetrate the ranks of the Republican mainstream. It would build future US nonproliferation efforts on the fragile foundation of rank hypocrisy -- "We have nukes, you don't, so do what we say or else..."

In the real world, an international norm of nonproliferation can be sustained only if it is based on the collective will of the community of nations as expressed both in the laws and policies of individual states and in multilateral treaties and agreements. It cannot be imposed by a single nuclear-armed superpower acting as a self-appointed gendarme for "counter-proliferation."

Even when the Cold War was running at full tilt, and the globe was crammed with tactical nuclear arsenals designed to "link" any aggression to the threat of nuclear annihilation, the U.S. "nuclear guarantee" proved either too narrow or too dubious for a number of countries, including the U.K. and France in the 1950's, Israel in the 1960's, India in the 1970's, and Pakistan in the 1980's. A number of other states -- including South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, South Korea, Iraq, and Taiwan, China -- embarked on clandestine nuclear weapons programs in the 1970's. Two of these -- Taiwan, China and South Korea -- were supposedly "covered" by the U.S. nuclear umbrella at the time, but sought their own nuclear weapons options anyway, while the other states were quite rightly unaware that America's nuclear umbrella was ever meant to include them!

Given the huge collateral investment in general purpose conventional forces that was required in any case, nuclear "extended deterrence" has always been more theology -- or fantasy -- than reality. Even within the rigid bi-polarity of the Cold War, such nuclear illusions were fraught with the risk of miscalculation and inadvertent mutual annihilation, as the world discovered during the Cuban missile crisis. But they can be especially dangerous when removed from the congealed but mutually understood political-military context of the NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation in Europe, and transplanted to some wholly different confrontation involving new antagonists in a very different historical context.

The reflexive nostalgia of some test ban opponents for the nuclear theology of a bygone era is disturbing, but not surprising. The list of those urging Senator Lott to reject the test ban reads like a directory of nuclear acolytes and Soviet threat-mongers from the waning decade of the Cold War. For them, apparently, the Evil Empire simply crumbled too soon.

But the thousands of nonstrategic U.S. nuclear weapons that supposedly lent "credibility" to the U.S. extended deterrent threat are gone now -- President George Bush and General Powell wisely got rid of them -- along with the Warsaw Pact tank armies that once menaced Europe and gave rise to "extended deterrence" in the first place.

How can it be that today, a full decade after the fall of the Berlin wall, some Republican Senators would reject an effective barrier to the proliferation of hydrogen bombs and missile warheads based on the test ban's purported inconsistency with the stale strategic doctrines of a bygone era?

No amount of hawkish huffing and puffing about America's allegedly "unique" require-requirements for more "modern" and "reliable" nuclear weapons can disguise the fact that in post Cold War world, a vote against the test ban is a vote for nuclear weapons proliferation. Let there be no mistake: from Peoria to Pretoria to Pyonyang, this is how a rejection of the test ban treaty will be understood, and Republican Senators will be held accountable for the consequences.

Assertion #2: "In the absence of testing, the actual condition of our existing nuclear weapons stockpile has already become more uncertain than it was when the United States was testing these devices... . The Nation has found, time and again, that nuclear testing is necessary to identify these problems and to confirm the effectiveness of corrective measures. Denied the opportunity over the past seven years to perform this sort of testing, we may have undetected defects in the U.S. arsenal today."

Response: This statement is artful propaganda, nothing more. It has nothing to do with the facts. Nuclear test explosions are actually a very poor way to detect defects in warheads arising from age-induced changes in "components and materials." A nuclear test explosion is an evanescent and difficult to diagnose event that provides a highly integrated result. It cannot be used directly to "detect" age-related flaws in warhead components or materials. This has always been done through an extensive stockpile surveillance, disassembly, and component inspection program based on valid statistical random sampling techniques. Nor has significant reliance ever been placed on nuclear test explosions as a means of indirectly identifying -- via an observed reduction in the weapon's nominal design yield -- unknown age-induced defects. Actual historical data on this question laboratories has been published in the unclassified technical literature: and can be summarized as follows:

A 1996 tri-lab study of the Stockpile Surveillance Program reveals that, of some 830 specific recording "findings" of defects in stockpile weapons from 1958 to 1993, less than 1% were "discovered" in nuclear tests, and all but one of these tests involved weapons that entered the stockpile before 1970 and are no longer in the U.S. nuclear stockpile today. After 1970, one warhead maintenance problem, related to the effect of tritium decay on the design yield, was "discovered" in a Stockpile Confidence Test (SCT) of the W84 warhead -- now in the "reserve" stockpile -- for the GLCM missile eliminated under the INF Treaty, but the problem was easily rectified without modification of the nuclear assembly system. Hence only 1 out of 387 -- or one quarter of one percent -- of the nuclear test explosions conducted since 1970 -- actually served to "detect" an age related flaw in a nuclear weapon!

Another three underground tests confirmed the existence of problems in the high explosive of the W68 SLBM warhead (fully retired years ago) and in the cold temperature performance of the (then new) Insensitive High Explosive (IHE) used in the W80 ALCM, and in the "Mod 4" version of the B61 bomb. Only four out of 141 (i.e. about 3%) of "Product Change Proposals" to war reserve weapons specifically required underground nuclear explosive tests to develop or confirm the corrective actions. In addition, three Stockpile Confidence Tests (SCT's) conducted after 1980 reportedly served the dual function of confirming fixes to already identified problems. Hence, no more than 11 tests, or less than 3% the 387 tests conducted after 1970, were conducted for the primary or even dual purpose of maintaining the reliability of the existing stockpile. [2]

This is a far cry from the alarmist assertion of the test ban opponents that "the nation has found, time and again, that nuclear testing is necessary to identify and to confirm the effectiveness of corrective measures." Hardly. As the opponents well know, the primary function of nuclear test explosions was, and remains -- for the U.S. or any aspiring weapon state -- the development and proof-testing of more powerful, deliverable, and militarily effective nuclear weapons.

Assertion #3: "There is no way to confirm [the] contention [that the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) can sustain the US nuclear stockpile] until such an alternative capability has been created using nuclear tests to validate the sophisticated models and data derived from these new SSP assets...this fact was explicitly recognized in the Hatfield-Exon legislation of 1992 that led to the present moratorium - legislation that expressly contemplated additional underground tests would be necessary to prepare the U.S. stockpile, diagnostic tools, and scientific cadre for a permanent ban on testing."

Response: Wrong on all counts. The new three-dimensional nuclear explosion simulation capability that is a major goal of the SSP is not required to maintain a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear weapons stockpile. The reasons for this are not hard to explain. Like a football, the "primary" nuclear explosive component exhibits symmetry around a single longitudinal axis. Hence existing two dimensional weapon codes, in conjunction with proven hydrodynamic radiography capabilities for diagnosing the performance of the high explosive system that compresses the primary's plutonium pit, can provide sufficient information to ensure reliable operation of existing nuclear weapon primaries. If the primary stage operates successfully, a minimum of 20,000 times the initial high-explosive energy is available to ignite the secondary stage, and thus the "reliability" of these secondary stages is not seriously at issue. Secondaries have been shown in tests to work even when corroded and cracked, and most are designed to produce substantial nuclear yield under a broad band of primary drive conditions. In stockpile confidence testing, a secondary has never failed to ignite in the presence of a minimally adequate primary yield.

Obviously, to maintain high confidence in nuclear weapons performance, limited-life components in the weapons must be replaced at known service intervals, and a representative sample of the weapons inspected annually to check for signs of deterioration. When potential problems are detected in subsystems and components external to the nuclear explosive package -- the vast majority of parts in a nuclear weapon or bomb system -- these can be exhaustively bench-tested for proper performance and either repaired or replaced with identical or improved components. As for the sealed nuclear components, if and when they exhibit signs of deterioration beyond that previously associated with acceptable performance in nuclear tests, they can be remanufactured to the previous test-proven specifications. Alternatively, all such components can be remanufactured at a specified "safe interval" corresponding to the already demonstrated lifetimes of stockpile warheads -- e.g. 25 -30 years.

With the nuclear stockpile greatly reduced from Cold War levels, such a streamlined approach becomes economically feasible. No life limiting factors have yet been identified for the pits and secondary components in the current nuclear stockpile, but a reasonable estimate might be 50 years for the plutonium components, and much longer for the uranium components. The primary "reliability" function of a three-dimensional (3-D) modeling capability would be to simulate the effects of aging in order to predict when age-induced changes would actually begin to degrade nuclear weapons performance, thereby avoiding the potential excess costs associated with "remanufacturing too early."

While such a comprehensive 3-D predictive capability would undoubtedly be nice to have, and might even be useful, it is not critical to the maintenance of a reliable stockpile, and the near term costs of developing and maintaining such a capability are likely to match, or even exceed, the long term savings from "optimizing" future schedules for weapon remanufacture. This is especially true if stockpile numbers continue to come down.

Senator Lott's correspondents also err when they suggest that validating new three dimensional code predictions requires deferral of a CTBT in order to conduct new nuclear test explosions. Experience has already shown that much of this work can be done -- and done more accurately -- in above-ground experimental facilities. (Underground tests are not a benign or easy environment in which to take data.) But in fact, nuclear explosive tests can be used -- all 1030 of them. A process of "postdicting" previous nuclear test results can be used to help "certify" the capabilities of the new codes. For example, in a "blind" simulation experiment, the code users can be given only the design specifications of a previously tested nuclear weapon, and asked to postdict its nuclear yield and other key performance parameters recorded in the underground tests. The code predictions can be compared not only with the historical test results, but also with the "legacy code" predictions used to design the weapon, and informed judgments made about the readiness of a new code for use in nuclear stockpile assessment and certification activities.

Finally, the bipartisan Hatfield-Exon-Mitchell legislation (Sec. 507 of the Energy and Water Appropriations Act for Fiscal year 1993, signed into law by President Bush on 2 October, 1992, did not "expressly contemplate" additional nuclear explosive tests for the purposes of preparing "diagnostic tools and scientific cadre" for a permanent ban on testing, as alleged in the opponents' letter. This assertion is incorrect.

The law gave the President the option of submitting a plan for the conduct of up to 15 tests over the three fiscal years preceding October 1, 1996, for the primary purpose of adding one or more specified safety features -- "insensitive high explosive (IHE)," fire-resistant pits (FRPs)" and "enhanced nuclear detonation safety (ENDS) to existing weapon designs slated for retention in the stockpile as of September 30, 1996. To be accepted, these modifications had to represent a cost-effective improvement in safety. Only two exceptions to this overall requirement were specified: (1) three of the 15 permitted tests could have been conducted to confirm the reliability of unmodified weapons if the President certified that each such test was "vital to the security interest of the United States, and (2) up to three of the allowed tests could have been conducted by the UK "if the President determined that it was in the national interest to do so." That was it.

In the event, the military services themselves determined that the safety upgrades then under consideration for the W80 ALCM and the W88 Trident warheads were not likely to meet the cost-effectiveness standard in the legislation, and that no enduring stockpile weapon's "reliability" was sufficiently in doubt for the President could certify in good faith that a nuclear test explosion was then "vital" to the security interest of the United States. Under these circumstances, President Clinton elected to continue the U.S. unilateral moratorium, which without doubt help establish the political environment for productive test ban negotiations and for indefinite extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1995.

Assertion # 4: "We have serious concerns about the unverifiability of a zero-yield CTBT and the virtual certainty that proliferation of nuclear weapons technology will not be significantly curtailed by this sort of arms control initiative."

Response: The letter makes no argument and offers no evidence to back up its assertion regarding the "unverifiability" of a zero-yield CTBT. Suffice to say, the CTBT, like other arms control treaties, is neither uniformly "verifiable" nor "unverifiable." Rather, it strives to ensure -- using an international monitoring system of plausible scale, complexity and cost --that the security risks to law abiding parties from any undetected violations are substantially less than the security benefits these parties gain from banning the explosions that can be detected with high confidence.

The CTBT verification system meets this criterion. In general, the higher the yield of a nuclear test, the greater the chances that it will be detected and identified as a nuclear explosion. Above a few kilotons, these probabilities are high irrespective of location and the mode of test device emplacement. It is true the treaty's verification system will not have a uniformly high-confidence capability worldwide to detect and identify very low-yield nuclear tests (i.e. those ranging from a few pounds to a few hundred tons). However, at the higher end of this spectrum, events with seismic yields of tens to hundreds of tons can be readily detected in many areas of the globe, including the Russian test site at Novaya Zemlya, but discrimination of potential nuclear events from large point-source chemical explosions remains a problem.

The current ambiguity surrounding underground "subcritical experiments" with high explosives and fissile materials was predicted by independent verification analysts, and is the inevitable outcome of allowing continuing underground explosive experiments to be conducted under a CTBT at the existing nuclear test sites. [3] With all the cynical political maneuvering that has attended the Senate leadership's handling of this treaty, it will probably surprise no one to learn that some of the same voices who argued strenuously for protecting nuclear weapon state prerogatives under the treaty to conduct underground "experiments" at their existing nuclear test sites, now argue that such "unverifiable activities" by other nations could jeopardize U.S. security.

The treaty addresses this issue by providing for voluntary notifications and exchanges of data regarding the conduct of large chemical explosions, and by mandating procedures for the conduct of on-site inspections of the vicinities of suspect events. Tests below a few hundred tons do not permit an adequate assessment of deuterium/tritium boosting, a major performance indicator in advanced nuclear weapons. A full yield proof test of a boosted primary for a two-stage thermonuclear device requires a test in the range of several kilotons or higher, and a reliable detection capability for such tests is not in doubt.

For an aspiring nuclear weapon state lacking sophisticated computational design code capabilities, testing kiloton range fission weapon designs at greatly reduced yields can be a dicey proposition, creating the possibility of an overshoot that ruptures the containment planned for the reduced yield, thereby risking disclosure of the test and harm to valuable scientific personnel. Data from such a modified device, while possibly leading to the discovery of errors in computer design codes, or improving confidence in such codes, does not allow confident certification of the desired nominal yield.

When it decided to negotiate toward a so-called "zero yield" threshold for the CTBT in August 1995, the United States government made the unilateral determination that very low yield "hydronuclear" testing was not required for its own security, and that well diagnosed hydrodynamic experiments coupled with computations provided an experimental result that was superior to hydronuclear experiments, which require significant modification of the weapon assembly system and extensive computations to yield a more uncertain result. But the freedom to legally conduct such experiments could be of some limited use to proliferant states, and thus, on balance it was judged better to ban them, notwithstanding the acknowledged verification uncertainties.

These are not as serious as they might appear at first glance, because in an increasingly open world, characterized by near instantaneous global connectivity, a clandestine very low yield program faces the ever present problem of inadvertent disclosure - for example through discussions or papers at scientific conferences - and the ever present likelihood that among the project personnel there will be at least one "whistleblower" - such as Israel's Mordechai Vanunu, for example -- who will expose the illegal test to the world. Only this time he can use the internet or a cell phone. Under such circumstances, a proliferant nation would have ample cause to be concerned that the risks of detection, including the diplomatic and economic consequences likely to flow from being found in violation, are greater than the technical benefits from conducting such very low yield secret tests.

Finally, the letter's assertion of "serious concerns...about the virtual certainty that proliferation of nuclear weapons technology will not be significantly curtailed " by the CTBT is just that -- a bald assertion, offered without argument or evidence of any kind. It is indeed a bizarre argument coming from those who stress -- despite the expertise accumulated from 1030 U.S. tests -- the continuing indispensability of nuclear testing to the United States. If there is indeed more for the U.S. to learn from its 1031st test, how can it be that China, which has conducted 45 tests, or India, which has conducted only four, or Pakistan, which has conducted two, will somehow manage to learn nothing from further tests? Obviously, the assertion makes no sense. While not a magic bullet for the problem of proliferation, the CTBT would have a significant inhibiting effect, as follows:

(1) it would severely inhibit and complicate the development by emerging nuclear powers of lighter, more compact two-stage thermonuclear weapons optimized for missile delivery; (2) it would prevent independent acquisition of nuclear explosive test data confirming (and thereby enhancing military confidence in) a nation's computational methods for predicting nuclear explosive yields and the effects of nuclear weapons on prospective targets, and one's own military and communications equipment; and (3) it would severely inhibit -- and thus hopefully foreclose -- a competitive quest by the advanced nuclear powers to develop new types of so-called "fourth generation" nuclear weapons.

While the feasibility of some nuclear weapons designs can be demonstrated in full- or sub-scale high explosive tests using inert materials or subcritical configurations of the weapon's nuclear explosive component, the expected full nuclear explosive yield of the device and its probable performance against a range of military targets cannot be confidently extrapolated from hydrodynamic tests alone. Nuclear yield and effects information is presumably of critical interest to any military establishment considering the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and to obtain it requires either access to nuclear explosive test data, or to a base of knowledge on how to correctly employ another nation's nuclear test calibrated computer codes.

In conclusion, on close examination, the conservative attack on the test ban is a careless pastiche of recycled Cold War deterrence doctrine, technical misinformation, and what the sociologist C. Wright Mills once dubbed "crackpot realism." But most alarming of all is the evident willingness of Republican leaders to risk a much wider proliferation of thermo-nuclear weapons capabilities in order to ensure that the "credibility" of American nuclear deterrent threats can be sustained and even enhanced in the future.


1. "A Test Ban That Disarms Us," Washington Post, Sept. 10, 1999. The Majority Leader spoke as follows: "Mr. LOTT: I commend for the reading of the Senate today's editorial page article by Charles Krauthammer. I ask unanimous consent that a copy of that article be printed in the Congressional Record. It is a very good article. [Page: S10722]"

2. Kent Johnson et al., "Stockpile Surveillance: Past and Future," SAND 95-2751/UC-700, January 1996, pages 5 and 8 and Figures 4 and 10.

3. A requirement to conduct all such dynamic experiments with fissile materials above ground in suitable containment vessels with a given tensile strength, would place a much lower bound on the maximum yield from such experiments, and such vessels could be easily inspected after the shot for evidence of fission products indicating that a prohibited prompt critical chain reaction had been achieved.

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