A Powerful Barrier to Future Nuclear Tests

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The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty President Clinton signed last week is more than a symbolic break with the nuclear past. It is a practical step toward a safer future.

For good reason, much discussion of the CTBT has been cast in historical terms. Mr. Clinton is redressing what President Eisenhower described as the "greatest disappointment" in 1963, when the ban on atmospheric nuclear tests drove them underground. He rightly characterized that as a "step," though a major one. It removed nuclear poisons from children's milk but created no real impediment to the further development and refinement of nuclear arms.

In contrast, the CTBT - completely banning nuclear explosions of any size, in any place, forever - not only completes a bipartisan arms-control quest spanning more than 40 years, but it also helps wall off real nuclear dangers today and henceforth. The treaty's formal entry into force is likely to be delayed by India and perhaps others. Even so, the treaty is immediately effective. In voting for it at the United Nations, and now in affixing their signatures, virtually all the world's countries are confirming that nuclear testing is unacceptable. This worldwide consensus will be a mighty barrier against any further nuclear tests, even as we continue to work to make the treaty fully binding in law. From now on, one major effect of the test ban will be to help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to more countries. Without testing, it is much harder to make a weapon small enough to load on an aircraft, fit atop a rudimentary missile, or conceal in a terrorist's luggage. So the test ban backs up other agreements, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to keep shrinking the number of states with a usable nuclear option. Permanent moratorium What about the existing nuclear-weapon states? To be sure, all five are now observing a voluntary moratorium on tests. But that has held - and expanded to France and finally China - only under the spotlight from the test-ban negotiations in Geneva. The test ban locks it in place. Here the treaty's major value will be to rule out any new qualitative race in nuclear weaponry. Through computer modeling, subcritical experiments, and other techniques, we can keep existing weapons safe and reliable without tests. …