Happy Birthday CTBT

On 24 September 1996, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) opened for signature at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, following three years of intense negotiations. The CTBT is the only treaty to ban all nuclear tests, everywhere and by everyone. The Treaty also has a unique global alarm system to detect nuclear explosions.

Click to watch UN press briefing on 24 September 2012 with CTBTO Executive Secretary Tibor Tóth (UN Photo/Jennifer S. Altman).

Long struggle to outlaw nuclear tests

The first proposal for a legal instrument to put an end to nuclear testing was made in 1954 by the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. This was followed by multiple rounds of negotiations in the 1950s and 1960s in which a complete ban on nuclear testing was discussed, but only a partial ban was achieved. The 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) banned nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in space and underwater. It still, however, permitted underground testing, which actually increased in numbers after 1963.

Jawaharlal Nehru called for a "standstill agreement" on nuclear testing.

1986: The Wind of Change

The 1986 Reykjavik summit between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev laid the foundations for the end of the Cold War. While the two leaders failed to agree on the complete abolition of all nuclear weapons, the summit led to a series of far-reaching arms control and disarmament measures. Nuclear testing and its verification were discussed at the summit and, for the first time, the Soviet side signalled openness to on-site inspections. The staged reading of the play ‘Reykjavik’ by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richard Rhodes on 27 September in New York re-enacted this summit. The play was followed by a panel discussion on ’25 years since Reykjavik – will we get it right in the next 25? ‘.

Nuclear testing screeches to a halt

In the five decades before the CTBT, over 2,000 nuclear tests shook and irradiated the planet. The post-CTBT world saw only a handful of nuclear tests: those by India and Pakistan in 1998 and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 2006 and 2009. These all met universal condemnation, including unanimously adopted UN Security Council sanctions. The zero-tolerance stance against nuclear tests is reflected by the number of States Signatories to the CTBT: 183, or over 90% of all countries; see interactive map.

Nuclear testing 1945-2009 - click to enlarge.

Core provisions of the CTBT (see summary / full text )

•    Prohibition of all nuclear explosions, anywhere, by anyone.

•    The establishment of a global verification regime, including an intrusive on-site inspection regime to detect any Treaty violations. Over 85% of a network of 337 monitoring facilities that scan the planet constantly for signs of a nuclear explosion are already operational; see interactive map.

•    Stringent entry-into-force provision: The Treaty will become global law only after it has been signed and ratified by the 44 States listed in Annex 2 to the Treaty, i.e. the States that had nuclear power or research reactors when the CTBT was negotiated. Of these, eight have yet to sign or ratify: China, the DPRK, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and the United States.