Fukushima: Another reason to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

By Alexander H. Rothman | March 23, 2011

Over the past two weeks, the monitoring system put in place under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has proved useful in helping the international community weather the effects of Japan’s massive 9.0 earthquake. Designed to detect nuclear weapons tests, the CTBT’s network of global monitoring stations has enabled the international community to track Fukushima’s radioactive plume, which reached the West Coast of the United States last week. Perhaps even more significantly, in the immediate aftermath of the quake, data from the CTBT’s monitoring system allowed scientists to issue tsunami alerts for Japan, Hawaii, and other parts of the Pacific. The utility of this monitoring system during this terrible time should serve as a reminder to the Obama administration and the Senate that ratifying the CTBT would strengthen both US and global security.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty forbids member states from carrying “out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion.” Since the treaty opened for signature in 1996, 153 states have become party to the CTBT, including three nuclear weapons states (Russia, France, and the United Kingdom) and the majority of the US’s major allies. The United States has signed — but not ratified — the treaty. And the failure to do so creates a significant obstacle, preventing it from entering into force.

To enter into force, the CTBT must be ratified by what are known as the Annex 2 countries: the 44 countries, including the United States, that possessed nuclear power or research reactors between 1994 and 1996. Thirty-one of these countries have ratified the treaty; another ten have signed without ratifying. Three of these countries have neither signed nor ratified the treaty.

The CTBT would improve American security by bolstering the global nonproliferation regime, strengthening the norm against nuclear testing, and preventing nuclear proliferation. Without testing, it would be far more difficult for non-nuclear states to construct a functioning nuclear weapon or for the existing nuclear powers to develop more advanced warheads. Moreover, the US has voluntarily refrained from testing since 1992, and testing is no longer necessary to ensure the viability of our nuclear arsenal. As a result, the United States has little to lose and much to gain from ratifying the treaty.

The CTBT’s monitoring system is supported by country contributions. These contributions are unlikely to continue indefinitely if no progress is made toward securing the ratifications necessary for the treaty to enter into force. President Obama has publicly declared his desire for the United States to ratify the CTBT. The disaster in Japan should remind Congress doing so would be a good idea.

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