The Mushroom Clouds on the Horizon: The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

Originally published here.

Ivy Mike fireballIvy Mike mushroom cloud

"Ivy Mike" nuclear test. The fireball (top photo) was 3.25 miles wide; the mushroom cloud (bottom photo) was 100 miles across. Click photos to enlarge.*

I was stunned. I mean, it was big. I’d been trying to visualize what it was going to be like, and I’d worked out a way to calibrate the shot. The initial fireball I guess I calibrated by holding up a quarter. If the quarter would cover the fireball then the yield would be less than something; if the fireball were bigger than the quarter, then it would be more than something. The question was, looking through my dark glasses, could I cover the fireball with a quarter. And I couldn’t, so I knew it was big. As soon as I dared, I whipped off my dark glasses, and the thing was enormous, bigger than I’d ever imagined it would be. It looked as though it blotted out the whole horizon, and I was standing on the deck of the Estes, thirty miles away.

– Los Alamos radiochemist George Cowan, describing the first thermonuclear (hydrogen bomb) test “Ivy Mike”.

Quoted in Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, by Richard Rhodes

There is a certain sinister beauty to nuclear weapons tests. It’s easy to get lost in archived footage and photographs; the “Ivy Mike” test is no exception.

Mike” (m, for megaton) was the first thermonuclear device (hydrogen bomb) ever tested. The 10.4 megaton test was conducted in 1952, in the South Pacific, at the Enewetak Atoll. It destroyed an entire island, and rained radioactive debris up to thirty miles away.

Over one hundred atmospheric nuclear tests were conducted at the Pacific Proving Grounds, on the Bikini and Enewetak Atolls; after the US ratified the Partial Test Ban Treaty (also known as the Limited Test Ban Treaty) in 1963, the rest of the US nuclear tests were conducted underground at the Nevada Test Site. (pdf, all US nuclear tests).

All of this may seem arcane and quite abstract to you, and something that belongs only in history books. Indeed, the United States hasn’t conducted a nuclear test since 1992.

So what’s the big deal? Why discuss it now?

Most people don’t know this, but the United States never ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which is described in detail here, at the Nuclear Threat Initiative site. An excerpt:

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)—described as the “longest sought and hardest fought for arms control treaty in history”—was opened for signature in September 1996. The CTBT obligates countries that sign and ratify “not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion.” It provides for an extensive verification regime including an International Monitoring System (IMS) to detect nuclear explosions, a global infrastructure for satellite communications from IMS stations to an International Data Center (IDC) that processes and distributes data to State Parties, and for on-site inspections, which may be requested by any State Party to determine whether suspected cheating has occurred. To implement these verification arrangements, the treaty establishes a Comprehensive Test Ban Organization (CTBTO) located in Vienna.


For decades, states seeking to limit nuclear weapons have called for a CTBT in the conviction that a comprehensive test ban would foreclose the ability to develop new and more powerful types of nuclear arms and would be an important stepping stone to the objective of ultimately eliminating all nuclear weapons.

What is especially significant now has everything to do with President Obama’s goal to ratify the CTBT by Spring 2010.

Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, wrote in December 2008 that after years of the Bush administration “stubbornly and actively resist[ing] the CTBT’s logic,”:

President-elect Barack Obama’s November victory represents a clear mandate for change on a number of national security issues. One of the most decisive ways in which Obama can restore U.S. nonproliferation leadership and spur action toward a nuclear-weapons-free world is to win Senate support for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) within the next two years.


Given the 16-year-old U.S. nuclear test moratorium and 1996 decision to sign the treaty, the United States bears most CTBT-related responsibilities. Yet, Washington’s inaction diminishes its ability to prod other nations to join the treaty and refrain from testing, and it has severely undermined efforts to repair the battered NPT system.

At the same time, there is neither the need nor any political support for renewed U.S. testing for new nuclear warhead design purposes or for any other reason. The 2010 NPT review conference is fast approaching. Quite simply, it is time to ratify the CTBT.

There is hope. During the presidential campaign, Obama pledged to “reach out to the Senate to secure the ratification of the CTBT at the earliest practical date and…then launch a diplomatic effort to bring onboard other states whose ratifications are required for the treaty to enter into force.”

Last week, I spoke with Kimball about the CTBT, which Obama hopes to ratify by April 2010. I was curious about what obstacles Obama might face from the Senate, specifically if proponents of a new generation of nuclear warheads (the Reliable Replacement Warhead, or RRW) would try to tie that in with CTBT ratification, as Ellen Grossman indicated in her excellent Global Security Newswire article on the administration’s internal battle over the RRW.

Kimball said:

I think what will definitely happen is in the test ban treaty discussion the skeptics of the test ban [such as Jon Kyl, R-AZ] will insist upon modernizing the nuclear weapons design and production infrastructure, and they will suggest that we modernize our existing warheads to make them effective well into the future. Now, what “modernize” means is in the eye of the beholder, and there are a lot of different ideas out there. As you wrote, one of the ideas is to actually design and build new types of warheads that would be basically for the same missions but they’d be newly designed warheads.

There are other ways to “modernize” the nuclear weapons infrastructure and to upgrade or refurbish the warheads. But that will be an issue in the test ban debate, and Kyl, who will never support the CTBT because he is outside the mainstream and because he is just dead-set against it. He is going to try to extract concessions and commitments to spend money to, quote-unquote “modernize” the weapons complex and yes, he would favor RRW warheads in the START discussion, which will happen before CTBT. So that is how I see things coming down.

Now, the reality, as I write in my pieces [click here, and here], is that the existing nuclear stockpile is safe and reliable. We’ve been refurbishing these warheads for the last fifteen years, extending their service lives. There is no reliability issue, and it makes no difference today how we maintain our nuclear arsenal, whether we ratify the CTBT or we don’t because we’re already observing a nuclear test moratorium. No one is proposing that we resume nuclear testing.

The thing is, I mean, I think one thing to get across to folks, somehow, you know, is that nuclear test explosions — we’ve done over a thousand — have never been the way in which we confirm that existing warheads continue to work. The reason that we conducted all those tests was mainly to proof-test new designs. So once a warhead has been designed and tested, there’s no need to go back and pop off a few explosions. So it’s something of an illusion that has been created by some who say we can’t ensure that the stockpile works unless we’re able to conduct nuclear test explosions. It’s not the way we’ve ever done this before.

I brought up the fact that John McCain has expressed interest in pushing for ratification of the CTBT, and asked Kimball if he thought there were other Republican Senators who might be on board. He said:

That’s a tough question. I mean, I don’t want to reveal our vote counts and our prognostication of certain individual senators… I think there are about a dozen Republicans who either haven’t voted on the test ban treaty before or who’ve expressed support for reconsidering the treaty.

The main argument that we’re making – the administration is now making – is that it’s time to reconsider the CTBT because the concerns that some senators had in 1999 when the Senate voted “no”, October 13, 1999, an anniversary that’s coming up soon, have largely been addressed. We now have a proven track record of work by the weapons labs of maintaining the existing warheads. The verification and monitoring has improved. So it is time to reconsider. And so there are a few senators, like Lugar and McCain who have the capability, the gravitas, to bring along some of their other Republican colleagues, who don’t feel as bold or comfortable dealing with these issues.

I asked Kimball about parliamentary procedure, i.e. how many votes it will take in the Senate to ratify the treaty. He told me:

You have to have two-thirds, so 67 votes, so that’s why I said in that December column I wrote… with 60 Democrats the president is within striking distance of getting the necessary two-thirds. It’s still very tough, but he’s within striking distance. The other parliamentary thing is that the treaty was signed in 1996, it was transmitted to the Senate in 1997, and even though the Senate voted on it and rejected it in October of 1999, it’s still technically on the executive calendar of the Senate, so it doesn’t have to be resubmitted. It’s there already.

He did emphasize that it will be difficult for Obama, which was a sentiment echoed in a blog post by the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Project On Nuclear Issues, where they mentioned Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as a specific thorn in Obama’s side on this issue, in addition to Jon Kyl. John Isaacs of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation adds Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to the list of Republicans opposed to CTBT ratification.

So, to re-cap, Obama has the following nuclear weapons issues on his plate: the Nuclear Posture Review, a new START treaty (and the complex negotiations with Russia that go with it), and his strongly stated support for ratification of the CTBT. Overall, these issues are related in tangential ways, and not a single one of them can be summed up in one blog post, which is why I hope you’ll take the time to click all the links I’ve posted and explore the sites associated with them.

President Obama has always been a strong proponent of reducing the role nuclear weapons play in US policies. In his April 2009 speech in Prague, he said:

To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty… After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.

By ratifying the CTBT, the US will set a strong example for the rest of the world.

*Further information on the Ivy Mike test can be found here.

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