CONTEXT: President Donald Trump's administration has discussed holding the first US nuclear test since 1992 as a potential warning to Russia and China, the Washington Post reported recently.
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Such a test would be a significant departure from US defense policy and dramatically up the ante for other nuclear-armed nations - starting a gun to an unprecedented nuclear arms race.
- Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments (Compliance Report): The report issued by the United States State Department in mid-April raised concerns that China might be conducting nuclear tests with low yields at its Lop Nur test site, in violation of its Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) undertakings.
- The U.S. report also claims that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons experiments that produced a nuclear yield and were inconsistent with ‘zero yield’ understanding underlying the CTBT, though it was uncertain about how many such experiments had been conducted.
- Moscow and Beijing have denied the claims, and the US has not offered evidence for them.
- The Washington Post report came after Trump announced that he plans to withdraw from the Open Skies treaty with Russia, which was designed to improve military transparency and confidence between the superpowers.
- It is the third arms control pact Trump has abrogated since coming to office. Earlier, the US has also dropped the 2015 JCPOA agreement to prevent Iran from advancing its nuclear weapons program, and the 1988 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia.
- Russia has insisted it will abide by the agreement, which seeks to lower the risk of war by permitting each signatory country's military to conduct a certain number of surveillance flights over another member country each year on short notice.
Zero yield: A comprehensive test ban has been defined as a “zero yield” test ban that would prohibit supercritical hydro-nuclear tests but not sub-critical hydrodynamic nuclear tests.
Demonstrating Washington's ability to "rapid test" would be a useful negotiating tactic as the US seeks a trilateral agreement with Russia and China over nuclear weapons.
Dangers of conducting nuclear test by US:
- Nuclear non-proliferation activists condemn the idea, as this would be the starting gun to an unprecedented nuclear arms race.
- It would also likely disrupt negotiations with North Korean, which may no longer feel compelled to honour his moratorium on nuclear testing.
- According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the group that won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, warned that a nuclear test could plunge us back into a new Cold War.
- It would complete the erosion of the global arms control framework.
International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)
- It is a global civil society coalition, formed in 2007, working to promote adherence to and full implementation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
- The campaign, which is headquartered at Geneva, Switzerland, helped bring about this treaty.
- The campaign received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), or the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty, is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, with the goal of leading towards their total elimination.
- It was passed on 7 July 2017.
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty(CTBT)
CTBT bans all nuclear explosions - everywhere, by everyone. The Treaty was negotiated at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. It opened for signature on 24 September 1996.
- For decades, a ban on nuclear testing was seen as the necessary first step towards curbing the nuclear arms race but Cold War politics made it impossible.
- A Partial Test Ban Treaty was concluded in 1963 banning underwater and atmospheric tests but this only drove testing underground.
- By the time the CTBT negotiations began in Geneva in 1994, global politics had changed. The Cold War had ended and the nuclear arms race was over.
- CTBT came into being in 1996 but has failed to enter into force even after a quarter century.
Negotiations were often contentious:
- France and China continued testing, claiming that they had conducted far fewer tests and needed to validate new designs since the CTBT did not imply an end to nuclear deterrence.
- France and the U.S. even toyed with the idea of a CTBT that would permit testing at a low threshold, below 500 tonnes of TNT equivalent.
- Civil society and the non-nuclear weapon states reacted negatively to such an idea and it was dropped.
- Some countries proposed that the best way to verify a comprehensive test ban would be to permanently shut down all test sites, an idea that was unwelcome to the nuclear weapon states.
- Eventually, the U.S. came up with the idea of defining the “comprehensive test ban” as a “zero yield” test ban.
Controversy regarding enforcement of CTBT:
- Vaguely defined: The CTBT prohibits all parties from carrying out “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion”; these terms are neither defined nor elaborated.
- Lacks authority:
- Another controversy arose regarding the entry-into-force provisions (Article 14) of the treaty.
- After India’s proposals for anchoring the CTBT in a disarmament framework did not find acceptance, India announced its decision to withdraw from the negotiations.
- Unhappy at this turn, the new provisions listed 44 countries by name whose ratification was necessary for the treaty to enter into force and included India.
- Status of the treaty today: The CTBT was adopted by a majority vote and opened for signature.
- Of the 44 listed countries, to date only 36 have ratified the treaty. China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the U.S. have signed but not ratified. In addition, North Korea, India and Pakistan are the three who have not signed.
Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO)
- CTBTO is an international organisation to verify the CTBT, established in Vienna.
- Ironically, the U.S. is the largest contributor with a share of $17 million.
- The CTBTO runs an elaborate verification system built around a network of over 325 seismic, radionuclide, infrasound and hydroacoustic (underwater) monitoring stations.