Obama Atomic-Test Ban Goal Faces Scrutiny From Science Panel

President Barack Obama’s goal of Senate ratification for a treaty banning atomic weapons tests faces a key hurdle later this month, when a scientific panel will weigh in on whether the U.S. can verify the reliability of its nuclear stockpile without additional tests.

A National Academy of Sciences committee will release the long-awaited report on March 30 in Washington, according to a notice posted on the group’s website. The study has been underway since 2009.

“The report addresses the ability of the United States to maintain the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile,” according to the announcement. The assessment also examines questions such as “the capability to detect, locate and identify nuclear explosions.”

The ability of the U.S. to rely on modern scientific measures rather than test explosions is central to Obama’s argument for reversing the Senate’s 1999 vote against ratifying the treaty. Obama’s nuclear arms control agenda has largely stalled after a successful 2010 fight with Senate Republicans to ratify a new nuclear weapons treaty with Russia and in the run- up to November’s presidential election.

“The report is likely to confirm that the stockpile stewardship program has been very effective and that there are no technical reasons to resume testing,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association policy group in Washington, said in an interview. The program has used alternative technical means to verify the reliability of the weapons.

The Holdouts

The test-ban treaty, while not yet in force, has been signed by more than 180 countries. Its terms require that 44 designated countries with nuclear technology must sign and ratify the treaty before it enters into force. In addition to the U.S., the holdouts are China, North Korea, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel and Pakistan.

“The President is committed to getting the CTBT ratified,” Ellen Tauscher, then-undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told the Defense Writers Group in January.

The U.S. has banned its own nuclear testing by law and executive order since the early 1990s.

“So we‘ve been living under a treaty, but we can‘t actually use it to enforce the same thing on other people,’’ said Tauscher, who now is the administration’s special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense.

Opponents’ Questions

Opponents of Senate ratification question whether the treaty can be enforced on other nations and whether the reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile can be verified without testing.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna has worked for years to establish a system of tools to monitor a ban on nuclear weapons tests.

The monitors provided data after North Korea’s 2009 nuclear test to indicate that shocks being reported as a possible earthquake more likely originated from a nuclear detonation. Thirty minutes later, North Korea announced that it had conducted a nuclear test.

To contact the reporter on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at vgienger@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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