Ratify Test Ban Treaty to Help Protect Nuclear Secrets

by Charles Ferguson,
Federation of American Scientists Defense News May 24, 1999

The Senate can best repair the alleged damage to US nuclear weapons security by ratifying the nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) this year.

Wen Ho Lee, a former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist, is accused of transferring nuclear weapons codes and related data from classified to unclassified computers, which, in principle, could be accessed from outside the laboratory.

However, if any foreign nation, such as China, acquired these codes, it would not necessarily have the ability to make workable advanced nuclear weapons.

Some may argue that if given access to US nuclear weapons data, another nation could simply reproduce these weapons. On the contrary, after China reportedly stole neutron bomb information in the early 1980s from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, China's neutron bomb test failed in 1988.

This failure allegedly provoked China to steal additional neutron bomb information in 1995.

As long as China adheres to a nuclear testing moratorium, which began within a year after China's latest alleged theft, China will not be confident that its neutron bomb would work. Global enactment of the CTBT, which bans nuclear explosive testing, will turn this moratorium into international law.

Having confidence in any nuclear weapon ultimately requires nuclear explosive testing. Military leaders would not be willing to risk their nation's defense or their careers on untested weapons.

Even China, a nation with decades of nuclear weapons experience, felt obligated to test the stolen neutron bomb design. Nations less sophisticated in nuclear weapons technology, which includes the rest of the world except for acknowledged nuclear weapons nations, will feel even more compelled to test if they want to develop advanced nuclear weapons.

Assuming the worst-case -- that foreign nations acquired US nuclear weapons codes -- the most effective defense now would be for the US to ratify the CTBT, acting as a leader to press for global enactment of this treaty and thereby severely restraining the development of these weapons.

CTBT enactment will establish an extensive International Monitoring System to detect clandestine activity to very low explosive yields. Moreover, violators would be subject to harsh international sanctions.

While many senators justly lament the national security breach of stolen nuclear secrets, the CTBT languishes for want of Senate ratification. Without Senate ratification by September, the United States will relinquish its world leadership role and be denied a seat this fall at the special international conference on the CTBT entry into force.

Senator Jesse Helms, R-NC, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., have erected road blocks against ratification. They have prevented their senatorial colleagues from considering the virtues of the CTBT through hearings, which would lead to a floor vote.

Senators are rightly concerned about our nuclear weapons security as exemplified by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's recent unanimous vote to investigate Chinese espionage at U.S. nuclear weapons labs. And they can best act on that concern by encouraging Senator Helms to hold hearings and Senator Lott to schedule a floor vote on the CTBT.

By so doing, the United States will be sending a clear signal to the world that it is serious about preventing nuclear proliferation. India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons one year ago and recently flight-tested nuclear capable ballistic missiles. If the United States wants these and other nations to show nuclear restraint, it must lead by example.

Ratifying the CTBT, however, does not imply unilateral disarmament as some critics contend. Instead, the CTBT will lock in the US advantage in nuclear weapons, while curtailing the deployment of new weapons.

The United States has the most advanced nuclear weapons in the world and can rely on its science-based stockpile stewardship program to ensure the safety and reliability of its nuclear arsenal without nuclear explosive testing.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the directors of the three nuclear weapons labs have given their unanimous endorsement to the CTBT and have fully certified the United States nuclear arsenal since nuclear explosive testing stopped in 1992.

Ever since President Dwight Eisenhower, three out of four Americans have consistently supported a nuclear test ban. This support is truly bipartisan. And Senate ratification will appeal strongly to voters, especially during this post-impeachment time when Democrats and Republicans need to rally behind bipartisan issues.

While the United States must protect its secrets and upgrade its security systems, it would provide even greater world security by ratifying the CTBT this year.

Charles D. Ferguson, a physicist and former United States naval officer, is a senior research analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, Washington.