The Test Moratorium's Uncertain Future

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It has been nearly 10 years since the United States has conducted a nuclear test explosion. After 1,030 U.S. nuclear detonations, Congress, following the Soviet Union's lead, legislated a halt to nuclear testing in the fall of 1992. This test moratorium has served U.S. and international security interests well. But now, a decade after the moratorium helped defuse the U.S.-Soviet nuclear rivalry, the Bush administration is pursuing new policies that put at risk the moratorium and the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

The moratorium and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) it helped produce created an important obstacle to the induction of new warhead types by nuclear-weapon states. At the same time, the United States has been able to continue maintaining its remaining nuclear weapons stockpile through robust non-nuclear testing and evaluation programs. The United States' test halt and its commitment to finalize the CTBT also provided the diplomatic leverage needed in 1995 to extend the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty indefinitely. Furthermore, the moratorium and the CTBT helped convince India and Pakistan to exercise nuclear restraint following their 1998 test explosions.

Despite these accomplishments, senior Bush officials announced shortly after taking office that they would not ask the Senate to reconsider the CTBT, which was rejected in October 1999 after a hasty and highly partisan debate. The administration has tried to deflect domestic and international criticism of this policy by insisting that there are no immediate plans to resume testing. But the White House has condoned a series of moves that further undercut the test ban treaty, call into question the permanence of the U.S. moratorium, and undermine efforts to detect and deter nuclear testing by other states.

Last year, the administration unilaterally decided to end its technical and financial support for short-notice, on-site inspections that will only be available under the test ban treaty. The White House then decided to boycott an international conference to promote the treaty's entry into force, which was supported by all major U.S. allies.

In recent weeks, it has become clearer that the Bush administration's test ban unilateralism is, in part, motivated by the misguided belief that new types of nuclear weapons are useful and necessary. The Pentagon's latest nuclear posture review calls for the development of new nuclear weapons capabilities to provide a wider range of options to defeat "hardened and deeply buried targets." The president asked Congress for $15. …