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Test ban and credibility

If Nobel prizes were awarded for encouraging nuclear proliferation and endangering world security, this year's award would surely have to go to the Republican leadership of the Senate. By engineering the defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), after nearly 40 years of bipartisan efforts to achieve one, Jesse Helms, Trent Lott, and their followers have taken the heart out of efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

A CTBT eluded President Kennedy in 1963 and the world settled for a partial test ban treaty, one that prohibited nuclear tests in the atmosphere, under water, and in space. In the ensuing decades underground testing helped fuel the race for new and more advanced nuclear weapons by enabling weapons scientists to develop and design new warheads.

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For that reason, ever since the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, the world community has seen a test ban as critical to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. When they signed the NPT more than 100 nations agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons in exchange for a promise from the nuclear states, including the US, to work toward complete nuclear disarmament. And since that time, a test ban has been seen as the litmus test of whether the US and the other nuclear powers would live up to that promise.

By failing to ratify the test ban, the Senate has essentially told the world community to drop dead. Not only has the Senate made a mockery of the one treaty that has helped stem the tide of nuclear proliferation, the NPT, it has done so for the most specious of reasons.

First, the opponents argue, a test ban is not 100 percent verifiable. In fact, there is no serious dispute that modern technology makes a test ban highly verifiable. Is there a chance that a country could hide a small nuclear test explosion? Yes. But the risk of being exposed as a treaty violator is very high. Thus, a CTBT is a hefty deterrent to clandestine tests. Without a CTBT, not only could nations with nuclear programs test at will, but there are no penalties or sanctions for doing so. Are we not better off with an international system that discourages testing than with an open season for nuclear tests?

Second, treaty opponents argue that the US nuclear arsenal cannot be relied upon without further testing. Regrettably, that is not true. Indeed, the Achilles' heel of the CTB is that weapons scientists, preparing for the day when a CTB would come, have been clever enough to devise computer-simulated nuclear tests that have all but eliminated the need for nuclear tests to ensure the reliability of the US arsenal.

Despite this shortcoming, the CTBT is still an important piece of the nonproliferation puzzle for two reasons. First, fledgling nuclear states have a greater need for nuclear tests than do the established nuclear powers with decades of experience in weapons testing and design and the technology to simulate nuclear tests. So, a CTBT will indeed make it harder for other states to acquire nuclear weapons. Perhaps more important, however, is the CTBT's enormous international political significance.

By repudiating the treaty the world community has long seen as a critical sign of US commitment to the NPT, the Senate has reinforced the notion that when it comes to nuclear weapons, the US says "do as we say, not as we do."

How can the US ever hope to limit the spread of nuclear weapons when it has made them the coin of the realm in international power politics? What credibility, what moral authority can the US now hope to bring to bear when nations such as India and Pakistan decide to go nuclear?

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Yes, we live in a dangerous world. Now, thanks to US Senate Republicans, that world is even more perilous.

*Mary-Wynne Ashford, a physician in Victoria, British Columbia, is co-president of the Cambridge, Mass.-based International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. Peter Zheutlin was IPPNW's director of public affairs from 1985 to 1993 and is a consultant to the organization

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society