Jonathan Medalia, Specialist in Nuclear Weapons Policy
June 3, 2009
Limitations on nuclear testing have been on the international agenda since 1954. The United States ratified one such treaty in 1963 and two in 1990 that together bar all but underground nuclear tests with an explosive yield of 150 kilotons or less. The United States has observed a unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests since 1992. In 1996, this nation signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would ban all nuclear explosions.
The Senate rejected the CTBT in 1999. That debate focused on such pros and cons as whether the United States could maintain its nuclear weapons without testing, whether it could verify compliance with the treaty, and how the treaty would affect nuclear nonproliferation. Another aspect to past debates was “Safeguards,” measures that this nation can take unilaterally within the treaty to protect its nuclear security. To compensate for “disadvantages and risk” they saw in the treaty regime, the Joint Chiefs of Staff conditioned their support for the 1963 treaty on four Safeguards: an aggressive nuclear test program, maintaining nuclear weapon laboratories, maintaining the ability to resume atmospheric tests promptly, and improving intelligence and nuclear explosion monitoring capabilities. Safeguards were key to securing Senate ratification of the 1963 treaty. Updated Safeguards have been part of subsequent treaty ratification efforts.
In April 2009, President Obama pledged to pursue U.S. CTBT ratification “immediately and aggressively.” A debate on the treaty would involve its pros and cons and how they have changed since 1999. CRS Report RL34394, Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty: Issues and Arguments, examines such issues, but no prior CRS report examined the role of Safeguards in a future debate. Like pros and cons, Safeguards could affect Senators’ net assessment of the treaty; unlike pros and cons, they are amenable to legislative bargaining and compromise. As such, they may play a key role in a CTBT debate. To that end, Safeguards could be updated, such as by adding Safeguards for the nuclear weapon production plants and strategic forces, and could be augmented with implementation measures.
While Safeguards may be part of a future CTBT debate, both supporters and opponents of the treaty could criticize them. Supporters may see augmented Safeguards as unneeded, arguing that the technical case for the treaty is stronger than in 1999. Many supporters favor further reductions and, ultimately, elimination of nuclear weapons, and view the CTBT as a stepping-stone in that direction; they could see revised Safeguards as moving in the opposite direction by supporting U.S. nuclear capabilities. Opponents assert that this nation cannot have confidence in its nuclear weapons or the program to maintain them without testing, and that nations could conceal nuclear tests. They hold that the United States has not adequately implemented existing Safeguards, and doubt it would do better with CTBT Safeguards. In their view, both the CTBT and inadequately-supported Safeguards would jeopardize U.S. security.
This report may be updated occasionally.
[Download the full CRS Report R40612 here.]