Scientists Say No Need for Nuclear Tests, Boosting Obama

The U.S. has the technology needed to detect nuclear tests by other nations and verify the reliability of its own arsenal without resuming nuclear test explosions, a scientific panel said.

The findings, in a report released today by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, might help President Barack Obama’s push for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, an expected administration goal if Obama wins a second term.

Still, the debate may pivot on politics more than on science. Republican opponents have said they’ll fight another push for approval because alternative means of monitoring may not always be sufficient. Also, they say the agreement binds the U.S. without adequate ways for enforcement on others. The Senate rejected the treaty during the Clinton administration in 1999, and President George W. Bush never sought ratification, although the U.S. continued to abstain from testing.

The National Academy panel members “have strengthened the case technically,” said Sidney Drell, professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Stanford University in California, who testified in favor of the treaty in 1999. “I would just hope there’ll be a serious, non-partisan discussion” of the treaty’s merits, he said.

Technical Capability

The U.S. has the technical capability to maintain safe, reliable nuclear armaments “so long as the nation is fully committed to securing its weapons stockpile and provides sufficient resources for doing so,” said Ellen Williams, chief scientist at BP Plc and chairwoman of the panel. “In addition, U.S. and international technologies to monitor weapons testing by other countries are significantly better now than they were a decade ago.”

Seismology has advanced enough to detect an underground blast “well below 1 kiloton in most regions,” the Academy said in a statement accompanying the report. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during World War II had yields of 10 to 20 kilotons, the Academy said.

American scientists understand nuclear weapons “a lot better than we did 10 years ago,” said Drell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution policy group.

The National Academy of Sciences panel said the U.S. program for verifying the safety and reliability of the stockpile without testing has made “significant advances” in knowledge and expertise since a similar 2002 report, including new research facilities.

Voluntary Moratorium

The panel’s conclusion, which didn’t take a position on treaty ratification, is the second time in 10 years that an Academy panel concluded that nuclear testing isn’t necessary to ensure the reliability of the stockpile. The U.S. has observed a voluntary moratorium on nuclear test explosions since 1992.

The main reason the U.S. might need to resume nuclear testing would be an adversary’s steps requiring the U.S. to produce a type of bomb it hasn’t previously tested, the panel said. In that case, the U.S. could withdraw from the treaty, citing national security concerns, the committee said.

The test-ban treaty is among the biggest goals on Obama’s agenda for reducing the nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons. Most of those aims have been delayed to a possible second term after a new treaty with Russia in 2010 that aimed for modest cuts in both sides’ stockpiles won just 13 Republican votes in the Senate.

Proponents of U.S. ratification for the test-ban treaty say it would prompt other nations to follow suit and then coerce the remaining outliers to fall into line. The U.S. and seven other countries needed for the treaty to go into force have withheld ratification: China, Israel, India, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and Egypt. China has said it would ratify the treaty once the U.S. does so, Drell said.

‘Not in Good Company’

“We’re not in good company,” said Drell, who wasn’t on the National Academy panel.

U.S. ratification probably would persuade India to ratify, which would encourage Pakistan to take the same step, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association advocacy group in Washington.

“U.S. ratification would, in the very least, prompt these other holdout states to ratify and would reinforce the existing global taboo against testing,” Kimball said in an interview before the report was released.

While supporters of a global test ban say the result would stem the spread of nuclear weapons, opponents of treaty ratification say that’s unrealistic.

Unlikely to Follow

North Korea and Iran are unlikely to follow suit, former Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey and a colleague wrote in a report issued this month by the National Institute for Public Policy. Explosive testing isn’t even needed to develop more primitive nuclear devices, they said, a point also made by the National Academy panel.

“Ratification is unlikely to rally international cooperation against nuclear proliferation,” Woolsey and Institute President Keith Payne said in the Washington group’s report. Woolsey is an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, and Payne was a deputy assistant secretary under former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

“The prospective negative consequences of ratification are not trivial,” they wrote, citing the U.S. ability to deter adversaries and extend similar protection to allies.

Talking for 38 Years

The Academy’s new assessment was conducted during almost three years by a nine-member committee that includes Director Emeritus Bruce Tarter of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, former U.S.-Russia nuclear weapons treaty negotiator Linton Brooks, and Richard Garwin, a former director of IBM Corp.’s Watson Laboratory who helped develop the first hydrogen bomb.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated negotiations for a nuclear-test ban with the then-Soviet Union and the U.K. in 1958. The talks took 38 years, and President Bill Clinton made the U.S. among the first to sign the treaty in 1996. The number of signatories has grown to 182 of 196 nations, and Indonesia last month became the latest to ratify the pact, bringing the total ratifications to 157.