Nuclear Test Ban Treaty needed to
help prevent nuclear war

by Charles D. Ferguson
September 3, 1999 Las Vegas Review Journal

If the Senate does not ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty this year, Americans could lose a unique opportunity to contain the growing threat of nuclear proliferation.

Since September 1996, 152 nations, including the United States, have signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, pledging to stop nuclear explosive testing forever. Although international law prohibits Test Ban signatories from testing nuclear weapons, the Senate's failure to ratify this treaty could result in other nations abandoning the Nuclear Test Ban.

The issue has now come to a head, with Senate Democrats threatening to hold up all Senate business unless Republicans agree to hold hearings on the treaty.

During the past year and a half, the world has witnessed nuclear and missile tests in India and Pakistan, missile tests in Iran and North Korea and allegations that China has stolen missile and nuclear-weapons secrets from the United States. If these nations, or any other, want to develop advanced nuclear warheads for missiles that could reach the United States, they would have to conduct nuclear explosive testing to give them the necessary confidence that the weapons would work.

Currently, America has the most advanced nuclear weapons in the world. By prohibiting nuclear explosive testing, we ensure that other nations will never equal the American nuclear arsenal.

For almost two years, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty has languished in the Senate. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., has refused to hold hearings to even consider this treaty, thus denying his senatorial colleagues their vote. Helms' stalling subverts the will of the American people. Recent bipartisan polls show that four out of five Americans and three out of four North Carolinians, Helms' own constituents, favor ratifying the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

President Clinton recently refocused his attention towards the Test Ban Treaty. However, two presidential speeches within a month do not make an effective campaign. If Clinton is really serious about this treaty, he must follow in the footsteps of President Kennedy, who made ratification of the Limited Test Ban a highly public issue in 1963.

The endgame for the Test Ban Treaty looms. On Oct. 6, only nations that have ratified the treaty will be allowed to have a voice and vote on accelerating the treaty's entry into force. Without Senate ratification before that date, the United States will have relinquished its leadership role, letting others make decisions for it.

Very little time remains on the Senate calendar. The Senate reconvenes after Labor Day, leaving less than a month to act before Oct. 6. Congress is scheduled to adjourn on Oct. 29. During the 2000 election campaign, the Test Ban Treaty is unlikely to come up for a vote. Therefore, without Senate action this year, the treaty could wither until 2001 at the earliest.

If we do not seize the opportunity now to enact the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and stop advanced nuclear-weapons development, we can only blame ourselves if the world becomes a more dangerous place.

Charles D. Ferguson, a physicist and former U.S. naval officer, is a senior research analyst with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C.