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Current Happenings on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

Posted on July 8, 2009


June 10-12 over 500 delegates from about 80 countries gathered at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna for the International Scientific Studies Conference (ISS09).  The participants were mainly scientists, many of them world-leaders in their fields, and their purpose was to examine the technologies relevant to the verification regime of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).  The 4 main technologies are seismic, radionuclide, hydroacoustic and infrasound.  Additional technologies which support these systems include atmospheric transport modelling and data mining.  The International Monitoring System (IMS) consists of 337 facilities in 90 countries and is about 3/4 ready.  On-site inspection is an additional key element in the verification regime.


The Conference began with a televised welcome from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who strongly endorsed the CTBT and condemned the May 25 North Korean test.  All the elements of the verification regime were examined in detail in keynote lectures and panel discussions.  Perhaps the backbone of the Conference was over 200 posters prepared by the scientists, many of which will be turned into scientific papers published in scholarly journals.   This very strong response indicated great interest in, and support for, the CTBT.  The posters examined all aspects of the verification system, including subsidiary benefits of IMS data to wider issues, such as climate change, pollution transport, geophysics, mapping the earth's radiation background, etc.  The Conference marked the welcome return to this subject of scientists from the U.S. national laboratories, who had been prevented from participating in some aspects of this work under the Bush administration. 


The Conference purposely avoided ``political`` issues and thus did not address some of the hard issues that will arise in the U.S. ratification debate.  As a result, there was little controversy and skeptics did not seem to be in attendance.  However, there was a general consensus that the verification system, acting as a whole, is highly capable and significantly better than foreseen when the Treaty was completed in 1996 or at the time of the 1999 U.S. ratification fiasco.  This is due primarily to better sensors and improved data analysis.  Although no system can guarantee detection of extremely low-yield explosions, it seems clear that the IMS, plus OSI, will be able to detect and identify any militarily significant nuclear explosions.  Note that the U.S. National Academy of Sciences is expected to begin an update of its authoritative 2002 study on this subject this year.         


The May 25 North Korean test was naturally of considerable interest to the delegates. There was some surprise and disappointment that, although the explosion was easily detected and precisely located by 61 of the  seismic stations, no radionuclides have been detected by the radionuclide network.  Given the relatively short half-lives of the relevant noble gases, the window during which detection would be expected is basically closed.  The fact that the smaller 2006 test was detected by both seismic and radionuclide systems may have raise expectations to unrealistic levels.  Either the DPRK was lucky this time or they have gotten better at containment.  Either way, the correct conclusion is not that the IMS is somehow deficient, but that this illustrates the critical importance of on-site inspections.  Of course, the North Koreans announced that this test was nuclear, but if they had not, although we might infer from the size of the blast and detailed seismic frequency analysis, that it was nuclear, we would not have a ``smoking gun`` with what is available now.   It is very difficult to distinguish between chemical and nuclear explosions by seismic means alone. 


Check out more about this conference, including formal presentations and posters, on the CTBTO website.  


Dr. Edward Ifft is an Adjunct Professor in the Security Studies Program of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a Physicians for Social Responsibility Board Member. He is a retired State Department Official who served on the U.S. delegations to the SALT, TTBT, START and CTBT negotiations, was the Senior State Representative to both the START and CTBT negotiations and served as Deputy Chief U.S. Negotiator to START. Dr. Ifft also served as Deputy Director of the On-Site Inspection Agency and Senior Advisor to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Dr. Ifft will speak about options and issues in negotiating a post-START treaty.


Sohini Sircar said ..

It is great to see so much support for the CTBT verification system by internationally recognized scientists. And I appreciate all the attention Sec-Gen Ban Ki-moon has brought to this important treaty.

July 21, 2009

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