When the limited test ban treaty was approved by John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev in 1963, much of the world looked hopefully toward the day when nuclear testing would be outlawed altogether. In the years since, some modest steps in that direction have been taken. The 1974 U.S.-Soviet Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT)—signed by Richard Nixon but never ratified by the Senate —permits underground testing of weapons yielding not more than 150 kt (kilotonnes) of energy—about 10 times the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In the 1976 Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty (PNET), the two superpowers imposed a similar ceiling on nuclear testing at nonmilitary installations. And in 1980, in what history may record as the last gasp of détente, the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union came close to concluding a comprehensive testing ban. The Carter administration broke off discussions for several reasons—the invasion of Afghanistan among them.
The arrival of Ronald Reagan brought the inevitable policy review. Its controversial results were made known last week. In a decision scorned by arms control advocates and hailed by conservatives, the White House announced that it would not resume comprehensive test ban negotiations with Moscow and London. Instead, pending Soviet agreement, Washington wants to rewrite the protocol to both the TTBT and the PNET, to strengthen verification provisions.
The administration’s argument is based on the infallible premise that any treaty is only as good as the ability to monitor compliance. Reading its seismographs, Washington believes that the Soviets have been testing weapons with yields well beyond the 150-kt range; the Kremlin denies it. But the seismic instrumentation that records and analyses nuclear explosions measures only ranges and probabilities. Hence, while reasonably sure that violations have occurred, the United States cannot be absolutely certain. Until this uncertainty is removed—or at least reduced to more tolerable levels—the White House said last week that there
is little point in ratifying either the 1974 or the 1976 accord or in pursuing a wider ban. However, the United States will continue to observe the terms of both treaties while renegotiation proceeds.
The president’s decision, taken at a National Security Council meeting last week and leaked to The New York Times, brought swift reaction from Capitol Hill. Senator Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.) vowed to introduce a resolution demanding quick resumption of the tripartite negotiations for a comprehensive ban. A House of Representatives version will no doubt follow. But, with Congress’ attention riveted on Lebanon, the economy and the fall elections, neither effort is likely to succeed.
Elsewhere there was skepticism, if not outright disbelief, about the administration’s rationale. “There’s no question that what’s behind much of this is the desire to do more testing,” said Marsha McGraw, associate director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association. “That’s the hidden agenda.” While concerns about verification are legitimate, McGraw says, a comprehensive ban could impede future developments in nuclear warheads.
Others read in this decision the awesome momentum of the weapons industry. “A comprehensive test ban would go to the heart of the planning infrastructure,” says Robert Alvares, director of the Environmental Policy Center, diminishing the industry’s ability to recruit topflight experimental physicists. On verification, Alvares notes that both the United States and the Soviets have agreed to on-site inspections on challenge. Besides, as the Times editorialized last week: “It is much easier to detect violations of a total ban than to discriminate among explosions with a force of about 150 kt.”
The counterargument is that a nuclear deterrent rests on its credibility. If systems old and new cannot be tested, doubts about their reliability are inevitable. And if one side or the other is cheating, nuclear nerve endings in a comprehensive test ban environment might become frayed. For hard-line cynics of Soviet intentions, nuclear weapons testing will always have a place; to suggest otherwise is to suggest that the weapons themselves are unnecessary.
The Reagan administration is thus trying to win both ways. It wants to project its faith in arms control without abandoning its right to continue testing. It will probably get its way—reopening protocol discussions on verification with Moscow and reaffirming the U.S. commitment to disarmament, even while the next generation of warheads is brought on stream.
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