The idea of banning nuclear weapons tests may seem like a Cold War-era relic, dead and buried since Senate Republicans soundly defeated the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty in 1999.
Nearly two decades later, however, President Barack Obama has dusted off the treaty and is promoting it as part of a broader plan to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons.
This week, his special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, Ambassador Adam Scheinman, was in Nebraska making the case for the treaty. He spoke Thursday at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Friday at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“Our aim is to reintroduce the (treaty) to the American people,” Scheinman said Friday.
Scheinman’s comments came near the beginning of the Deterrence & Assurance Academic Conference and Workshop, sponsored through the efforts of UNO and the Nebraska-based U.S. Strategic Command. About 200 people attended the sessions.
StratCom’s job includes supervision and deployment of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.
Scheinman said it was important to deliver his message in Nebraska.
“Nebraska is far from Washington, but it’s sort of the nerve center for U.S. nuclear weapons policy,” he said. “There’s interest in nuclear weapons issues that wouldn’t exist in any other state.”
The U.N. General Assembly in 1996 approved the test-ban treaty, which would have barred all nuclear tests. An earlier 1963 treaty already halted tests in the atmosphere, under water or in space, but some countries continued to test weapons underground.
So far, 183 countries have signed the treaty, but only 164 have formally ratified it.
To take effect, all 44 countries designated as “nuclear-capable” must ratify it.
Eight of those countries have not, including China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and the United States.
In a 2009 speech, Obama laid out a vision for “a world without nuclear weapons” and called for ratifying the test-ban treaty. But other issues have taken priority.
The United States placed its own moratorium on nuclear testing on 1992, and no nation except North Korea has tested nuclear weapons since 1998. But without the treaty, Scheinman said, any member of the nuclear club could begin testing again at any time without risking international sanctions.
Two major objections to the treaty in 1999 were that effective nuclear weapons couldn’t be developed without real-world tests and that there was no way to verify that countries weren’t secretly testing weapons.
But since then, Scheinman said, science has developed new testing methods that don’t require actually exploding a bomb. And a worldwide network now has been set up that uses seismology and other technology to detect underground nuclear explosions. That network detected all four of North Korea’s nuclear tests in the past 10 years.
“We can make a much more solid technological argument for (the test-ban treaty) than we could before,” he said. “The benefits outweigh any perceived risks.”
Scheinman said passage of the treaty also would help slow the arms race in east Asia. While the U.S. and Russia have reduced their nuclear stockpiles substantially since the end of the Cold War, he said, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea are building theirs.
Ratification would require the approval of 67 senators, an unlikely prospect in Washington’s polarized political climate.
“We’re realistic about the process,” Scheinman said. “But we think it’s time to revisit.”
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