Keeping the Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Alive
Image Credit: CTBTO

Keeping the Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Alive


On April 27, 2015, the States Party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) convened in New York to review the operations of the Treaty since the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Over the next month, they will chart the course for the next five years.

While it is easy to highlight the many issues of contention that threaten to derail the review process and prevent a positive outcome at the Review Conference, we also must not lose sight of the issues where the overwhelming majority of the international community has found agreement: all NPT States Parties have expressed their support for the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and agree on the importance of the full development of its verification regime.

Opened for signature in 1996, the CTBT prohibits nuclear testing by anyone, anywhere, for all time. Every NPT Review Conference that has produced a consensus final document has agreed that the Treaty is essential for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. The CTBT can act as a confidence-building measure in the context of a possible zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. There is only one State – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – that votes against the CTBT resolution in the U.N. General Assembly First Committee.

The CTBT has come a long way in the past five years. One signature and 13 ratifications brought the number of States Signatories to 183 and the number of ratifying States to 164. Among the Annex 2 States, Indonesia fulfilled the promise it made at the last Review Conference and ratified the Treaty in February 2012, increasing the number of ratifying Annex 2 States to 36 out of 44. These accomplishments notwithstanding, we still find ourselves far from the finish line of finally achieving the Treaty’s entry into force.

With regard to the Treaty’s verification regime, there has been significant progress made towards the completion of the International Monitoring System (IMS) network in all four technologies – seismic, hydroacoustic, infrasound and radionuclide. As of April 2015, 300 IMS stations have been installed. This represents about 90 percent of the total number of stations envisaged by the Treaty. And even at the current level of readiness, the monitoring system is providing a detection threshold far lower than was originally envisioned by the Treaty’s negotiators.

The track record of the CTBT and the strengthened norm against nuclear testing is unambiguous. We have only seen one country conduct nuclear testing in the past 15 years. Since the Treaty opened for signature in 1996, every nuclear test conducted has been met with virtually unanimous international condemnation. The CTBT Organization (CTBTO)  has a proven capability to identify and locate nuclear tests well below the yields envisioned when the Treaty was negotiated.

An unwelcome but powerful illustration of the value of the CTBT verification system was the nuclear test conducted by the DPRK on February 12, 2013, the third such event following the 2006 and 2009 announced nuclear tests. The event was detected by 94 IMS seismic stations, and data was made available to Member States approximately one hour after its receipt by the International Data Center (IDC) – more than 90 minutes before the DPRK publicly announced the test. On April 9 and 14, 2013, the Takasaki radionuclide station in Japan detected a significant quantity of Xenon isotopes consistent with a fission event occurring approximately 55 days prior to the measurement — coinciding with the February 12 event. The Xenon detection was shown to be consistent with the DPRK announced nuclear test.

There is a fundamental point to be underscored here. No national system was able make this detection and associate it with the DPRK test — even those with the most advanced and extensive capabilities. This is a true testament that multilateral verification is effective, reliable and necessary for moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons.

The improvements in system performance, timeliness, and precision between October 2006, May 2009, and February 2013 are demonstrative of the CTBTO’s achievements in developing and operationalizing the CTBT verification regime. The system has proven to be a valuable investment by the Member States for ensuring that no nuclear test goes undetected.

A major milestone in demonstrating the operational readiness of the CTBTO to conduct an on-site inspection was the OSI Integrated Field Exercise 2014 at the end of last year in Jordan. The exercise has proven that the CTBTO is operationally ready to conduct full scale on-site inspections, or OSIs, which constitute the final verification measure as outlined in the Treaty.

This is a record of success, and should be highlighted within the context of the NPT Review Conference. It is crucial that the international community remain committed to the full development of the verification regime in all its aspects, as well as to the maintenance and sustainment of the vital assets employed by the CTBTO and its Member States in fulfilling their verification obligations. This is the only way to protect the enormous investment that has been made, and ensure that the verification regime serves as an “effective, reliable, participatory and non-discriminatory verification system with global reach, and provide assurance of compliance with that Treaty.”

The 2010 NPT Review Conference reaffirmed the “vital importance” of entry into force of the CTBT as a core element of the international nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. However, in order to fully convey the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in 20 years after the CTBT was concluded, a final document at this RevCon should include language that is bold in ambition and strong in emphasis. It should reflect both the “vital importance” and “urgency” of the entry into force of the Treaty. This is language that has already found nearly unanimous agreement through the CTBT Resolution at the UNGA First Committee.

If the international community is serious about the CTBT, then then it must act. Those countries that have continued to block the entry into force of the Treaty need to hear from their friends and allies that the CTBT is and will continue to be a top priority in the efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and reduce the nuclear threat. There is no reason for those countries that are members of the zones free of nuclear weapons not to ratify the CTBT.

The entry into force of the CTBT is not just the responsibility of any one group of states. If States are to continue enjoying the benefits to international peace and security, as well as in the civil and scientific applications of monitoring technologies, then the obligation to achieve the entry into force of the Treaty needs to be owned by the international community as whole. And efforts towards this end must be made at the bilateral, regional and global levels by all stakeholders.

It is essential that the CTBTO retain the support of its Member States to conduct full scale testing, validation, and then finally acceptance. Without this support, the CTBTO will not be in a position to deliver on its mandated task. This is an important message that should also be reflected in the NPT Review Conference.

The P5 process is yet another example proving that the CTBT is a platform for cooperation, be it in mitigating Xenon emissions or discussing transparency measures in the context of the CTBT verification regime. The P5 came out with a strong joint statement in support of the CTBT at the Review Conference. They should now join forces to ensure that the outcome of the Conference advances entry into force while increasing support for and recognition of the operational capabilities of the CTBT verification regime.

Although there were important advancements in the 2010 Review Conference related to the CTBT, the important lesson to be drawn from the 2010 experience is “do no harm.” In other words, the process leading to the outcome of the 2015 Review Conference should avoid making compromises at the expense of one of the longest sought prizes in nuclear arms control.

Though achieving progress on this objective will not be easy, this should not validate arguments not to try. It may be the little steps along the way that create the big opportunities for real success. For we must not stop asking ourselves what the consequences of failure to bring the CTBT into force would be, including to the credibility of the NPT and the international non-proliferation regime as a whole.

Nikita Perfilyev is External Relations Officer at the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization. The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the CTBTO.

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