The Science and Technology Conference 2013

Over 750 participants from around 100 countries converged last week in Vienna to advance the verification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and to strengthen the relationship of the Treaty’s organization with the broader scientific community.

Click for Conference webpage

By engaging the scientific community in strengthening its own abilities, the CTBTO advances its vital work of preventing and deterring further nuclear tests…I renew my call for the entry into force of the CTBT.

With the sole exception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the conference also brought together scientists from the countries that have yet to formally endorse the CTBT for its entry into force: China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and the United States.

Keynote lectures highlighted the political importance of advancing science and technology as part of global efforts for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Speakers included Hans Blix, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ( address ); Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory; Michel Miraillet, Director, French Ministry of Defence (address) and Ellen Tauscher, former U.S. Under Secretary of State ( address ).

Lassina Zerbo, CTBTO Executive Secretary-elect and Project Executive for the conference

The Science and Technology conference series is a process; it provides an opportunity to integrate results of scientific research into operation to improve the CTBT verification regime.

Special session on the February North Korean event

The findings on the 12 February DPRK announced nuclear test were discussed in depth. With a total of 96 stations that detected the event – 94 seismic and 2 infrasound stations – it was described as the best-recorded nuclear test since the inception of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) in 1997. CTBTO expert Mika Nikkinen presented the detection of radioactive noble gases made 55 days after the event, which were found to be consistent with the announced nuclear test, and explained how other possible sources could be excluded. Regarding the time delay between the seismic and the radionuclide detections, Swedish radionuclide expert Anders Ringbom hypothesized that the radionuclides were contained inside the cavity or surrounding rocks for several weeks.
The 12 February test was another step in the march towards a dangerous nuclear weapons’ capability…but the DPRK is not yet able to reliably mount a warhead on a missile.

Mitigating “fogs” of radioxenon

One session of the conference was devoted to the issue of emissions by radiopharmaceutical plants. Such plants produce radioactive substances that are used for medical purposes. In the production process, isotopes of the radioactive noble gas xenon may be released. While not posing a health risk, the readings from these emissions are very similar to those of a nuclear explosion and therefore may affect the detections by the CTBTO’s noble gas network.
Representatives of the radiopharmaceutical industry participated in the conference. CTBTO Executive Secretary-elect Lassina Zerbo and Jean-Michel Vanderhofstadt CEO-General Manager, Institute for Radioelements, signed an agreement which will help to mitigate these negative effects for test-ban verification - see video:

Lassina Zerbo, CTBTO Executive Secretary-elect (left) and Jean-Michel Vanderhofstadt, CEO-General Manager, Institute for Radio Elements (IRE)

EU side event on verification

The European Union gave an introduction to its voluntary contributions to the CTBTO, which have added up to over 15 million Euros over recent years. In part, these contributions help to mitigate the effects of radiopharmaceutical emissions through campaigns to measure global background levels and through the development of filter systems. The EU’s contributions also enhance on-site inspection capabilities and support the organization’s capacity building efforts, which enable developing countries in particular to play a more prominent role in verification efforts.

Ambassador Györgyi Martin Zanathy, Head of the Delegation of the European Union to the UN in Vienna, at the side event 'EU Support to Verification Related Activities'

Non-verification uses of CTBTO data

Many of the over 300 presentations at the conference focused on using CTBTO data for advancing science and disaster mitigation. These included research on how whales’ calls are helping scientists to monitor the Earth’s climate, or how seismologists are using World War II mines to improve the seismic detection of explosions. A special session was concerned with the detection of the meteor blast over Russia on 15 February 2013, which was detected globally by CTBTO infrasound stations, with some signals recorded after circling the globe three times.
CTBTO data, especially infrasound and hydroacoustic data, are immensely useful.

Reykjavik Event: How can science help the CTBT enter into force?

Diplomats and members of the civil society joined the scientists for an evening screening of the play “Reykjavik” © by Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Rhodes, followed by a panel discussion. The play is a dramatic re-enactment of the 1986 Reykjavik summit, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan ( Richard Easton ) and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev ( Jay O. Sanders ) came close to abolishing all nuclear weapons.
We need a new Reykjavik but without the Cold War.

The screening prompted a lively debate among panellists and audience, as the moderator, Patricia Lewis from Chatham House, posed the question “How can science help the CTBT enter into force?” Ellen Tauscher said that the advantage scientists have today over politicians is that they hold greater public trust. Their voices, the facts and the strength of the CTBT’s verification regime that they have built, can be used to mobilise public awareness and support for the Treaty. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor of the Hindustan Times, stated that one problem, however, is that there are too few scientists who are solid communicators. The panellists noted that strong political leadership is needed but is lacking among the eight ‘hold out’ States.  “We need a new Reykjavik but without the Cold War,” noted CTBTO Executive Secretary Tibor Tóth.

Ellen Tauscher and Hans Blix


A number of prizes were awarded, including: awards for best oral presentation, best poster, best presentation by a young scientist, best science communicator and the European Union Star award for the best presentation on a verification-related topic.
This conference took place from 17 to 21 June 2013 in the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna. It was made possible by the generous support of Austria.