Foreign Policy Blogs

Don't You Forget About Me: More than just the theme song to "The Breakfast Club"

One of the many hats I wear is that of co-founder of an informal group of arms control and non-pro types, generously funded by the AAAS, who meet periodically to hear from experts in the field about topics of interest to the community.  On the heels of a speech made by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon to the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference on March 29th which reaffirms the Obama Administration’s commitment to press for ratification of the CTBT (, our latest gathering had us revisiting, yet again, the reasons why ratification is an absurdly reasonable idea. (See also the Arms Control Association’s coverage of the Donilon speech as well as those of CTBT foe and soon to be retired Senator Jon Kyl here:

The treaty, gathering dust for for nearly twelve years since its ratification went down in flames, continues to languish in the backwater of Senatorial recalcitrance.  However, now that certain unnamed members of the Senate were dragged kicking and screaming toward ratification of New Start – a healthy injection of funding for the weapons labs made the pain a bit easier to endure – some, including those within the Administration, have begun reviving the notion of trying to get the CTBT ratified. 

Dr. Greg van der Vink, a visiting professor at Princeton University and PhD in Geoscience, presented a number of recent technical developments which allows far better verification of the CTBT and improved monitoring capabilities since the CTBT was last reviewed by the Senate.  While the discussion itself was off the record, a recent paper by Dr. Van der Vink discussed at the gathering can be found here.


Creatively entitled “Verification of the Comprehensive Test Bank Treaty”, Dr. van der Vink makes three principal findings:  first, that, independent of the CTBT, the U.S. must monitor for potential nuclear tests around the world.  The verification provisions of the CTBT allow for such monitoring with improved capabilities.  So, ratification is a no-brainer since we have to do it anyway.

Second, there are those who contend that the U.S. would rely solely on the international monitoring system for verification of compliance.  Not so, says van der Vink. The IMS is only one of a significant number of other sensor networks scattered around the world that are capable of detecting evidence of a clandestine nuclear test, many of which are intended for other purposes.  170 monitoring stations are part of the IMS, while there are more than 10,000 other monitoring stations available to provide data even though they aren’t part of the IMS network.

Recall, says van der Vink, that the 1986 Chornobyl accident was not disclosed by Soviet authorities in a fit of candor, but discovered when a sensor in Sweden indicated elevated levels of radiation drifting in from the general direction of Ukraine.

Third, monitoring capabilities have markedly improved since the CTBT’s 1999 Senatorial defeat by roughly 1,000%, chiefly due to the use of “regional” waves which has also led to the ability to better discriminate between earthquakes and explosions.

Van der vink’s paper also reminds us that two scientific societies whose raison d’etre is things seismic, twice reaffirmed a 1999 statement on the capability to monitor the CTBT.  The American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the Seismological Society of America (SAA), in a rare joint statement, concluded that once the treaty enters into force, permitting all verification provisions to be fully implemented, they are confident that the combined worldwide monitoring resources – the IMS plus every other sensor out there, geared toward detecting earthquakes and other earthly disturbances – will meet the verification goals of the CTBT.

I’d like to be optimistic, but, IMHO, the combo of Senator Kyl’s unrelenting push against the treaty, along with the fact that his term doesn’t end until 2013, combined with the expenditure of much political capitol on getting New Start ratified, makes prospects for CTBT ratification in the next year or two fairly unlikely.  In fact, Senator Kyl, who is trained as a lawyer and has held public office since 1987, once again reminded an audience committed to getting rid of nuclear weapons, those at the Carnegie Conference circa two weeks ago, that a lawyer knows far more about detecting seismic disturbances than those pesky geophysicists and seismologists and that the CTBT remains a terrible idea. (  With all due respect to the junior Senator from Arizona, that’s rather like saying that my Master’s Degree in International Relations has prepared me to do open heart surgery.  Luckily, I’m inclined to leave that sort of stuff to, you know, surgeons.  But, try as they might, those seismologists and other assorted science charlatains simply cannot convince Senator Kyl, esquire, that the CTBT really is in the national security interest of the United States, even if, like all treaties, it contains a national security escape clause. 

However, waiting until 2013 runs the risk of having someone in the White House whose views are similar to those of Senator Kyl’s,once again leaving this important treaty to be used as a historical doorstop.



Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.

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