Nuclear treaty up in smoke

by Colin Macilwain

The Senate’s summary rejection last week of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which imposed an indefinite moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons worldwide, has left some scientists and engineers in the US wondering just what they have to do to get Congress to take technical advice seriously.

Physicists and engineers have spent the past six years developing a science-based stockpile stewardship programme, which aims to maintain weapons without resorting to nuclear testing. But the programme, which costs $4.5bn a year, was mauled in the brief Senate hearings. The directors of the laboratories which execute the programme did not help, testifying that they needed even more money to make it work.

Meanwhile, seasoned experts who supported the treaty were mugged by anonymous CIAofficials.

In closed hearings the CIA argued that it did not know whether recent seismic activity near a site in Russia was related to testing. The folks who brought us the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade said they couldn’t figure out what the Russians were up to: therefore, a ban on testing could never be verified.

The nuclear test ban prohibits tests which produce any fission yield at all. Some senators pointed out that a small fission yield may not be detected: ergo, the treaty is unverifiable.

The treaty’s advocates argued that the reason for the zero-yield test was simplicity; an upper limit of, say, 500 tonnes of TNT equivalent explosive yield would have led to endless arguments about whether a given event was 400 tonnes or 600 tonnes.

In the end, real technical argument was allowed little influence in the debate, as raw political factors dragged it to its grisly conclusion. The Republican majority in the Senate wanted to defeat and humiliate President Bill Clinton, and the test ban treaty gave them a rare opportunity to do so.

Clinton used the defeat of the popular treaty to hammer the Republicans. Al Gore said he would take the same position if chosen as the Democratic nominee in next year’s presidential election.

But whatever the long-term repercussions, it was a salutary moment when the legislative body which styles itself as the most sagely deliberative in the world was unable or unwilling to take sensible technical advice when considering its most important vote in years.