1994-96: Debating the basic issues

1994-96: Debating the basic issues

Negotiating the Treaty

Successfully negotiating a CTBT required addressing issues on several levels: political, procedural and technical. Nuclear weapons testing was considered by many non-nuclear weapon States as a threat to their national security, but the non-aligned movement also considered the continued existence and development of nuclear weapons by nuclear weapon States (NWS) unacceptable.

There remained tension over whether the NWS would live up to their disarmament obligations in the “grand bargain” between NWS and NNWS as outlined in the NPT. After having agreed to the indefinite extension of the NPT, NNWS looked for opportunities to insert language into the Treaty that would ensure substantial progress towards disarmament. India wanted to include language in the text to establish a time-bound framework for achieving nuclear disarmament.

Other countries, such as China, Mexico and Pakistan, wanted to see the CTBT include references to the broader issues of non-proliferation and disarmament. The United States, France, the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation opposed these measures and expressed their desire to limit the scope of the Treaty to simply a ban on nuclear weapon explosions. China aspired to an exception for so-called "Peaceful Nuclear Explosions", but later agreed to them being covered by the ban as well.

"We're not banning the bomb, just the bang." One delegate to the CTBT negotiations

Basic obligations

Delegations negotiating the CTBT at the Ad Hoc Committee held varied opinions on what the substance and scope of the Treaty should be. At the most basic level, defining exactly what constituted a nuclear explosion was not as easy as one might imagine.

At issue was the possibility that NWS would attempt to improve their arsenals by conducting low-yield nuclear tests. Furthermore, most NWS insisted that the Treaty must not diminish their ability to maintain the safety, security, credibility or reliability of their nuclear weapons. In particular, France was adamant about maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent to protect its own national security. One delegate noted, “We’re not banning the bomb, just the bang.”

Many States were opposed to this logic, claiming the idea of maintaining nuclear arsenals was against the spirit of the NPT, as well as the CTBT. India objected to a Treaty that would allow testing for safety purposes, which would perpetuate an imbalanced and discriminatory system. Pakistan also expressed its concern that safety and reliability tests would preserve the existence of nuclear weapons indefinitely, and therefore supported a ban on all tests with no threshold, along with the closing of test sites.

Basic obligations cont.

Taking the idea a step further, the Islamic Republic of Iran submitted a paper calling for the destruction of equipment specifically designed for nuclear testing and the closure of all test sites. Brazil argued that all equipment designed for purposes that would be banned under the Treaty should be destroyed. 

However, it was clear that most NWS found these provisions unacceptable. The Russian Federation stated that the test sites would be experimental and research centres would be for purposes not associated with nuclear weapons. The United States announced its endorsement of a zero yield ban conditional on several factors. These included the maintenance of nuclear weapon laboratories, the ability to resume testing if required and the interpretation of “supreme national interest”, which would allow the United States to withdraw from the Treaty if the U.S. nuclear deterrent could not be maintained without testing.

After extensive discussions, it was determined that the
CTBT would be a zero yield test ban.

Banning nuclear test explosions

Other fiercely debated issues included “subcritical” testing; in other words, the testing of non-nuclear components of weapons that would not result in a sustained nuclear chain reaction. India supported a zero yield ban, but felt the language in the text only banning nuclear explosions provided a loophole with which NWS with adequate technology could continue to improve their arsenals with subcritical testing. For this reason, Indonesia proposed the exclusion of the word “explosion” from the Treaty text, leaving only nuclear test, which would have prohibited computer simulations, hydrodynamic experiments and inertial confinement fusion experiments.

All of these activities might allow NWS to modernize their existing nuclear weapons without explosive testing. However, the United States insisted that subcritical testing using small amounts of uranium or plutonium with conventional high explosives would not produce a self-sustaining chain reaction. Indonesia withdrew its objection to the term explosion provided there was no threshold to the prohibition by the CTBT. In other words, the CTBT would be a zero yield test ban.

Pakistan expressed its concern that the emerging Treaty would achieve little in terms of disarmament. Australia, also advocating a world free of nuclear weapons, stressed that banning all nuclear weapon testing would require a different Treaty, with different verification methods, and different commitments from the NWS. Australia argued that even if the Treaty did not eliminate nuclear weapons, the CTBT would halt the qualitative arms race.

Although there was no solid definition of what constituted a nuclear explosion, delegates agreed that the Treaty would contribute to the international efforts toward nuclear non-proliferation. Furthermore, the Treaty would certainly inhibit the future development of nuclear weapons.


Next chapter: 1994-96: Creating the organization