Fifty Years After Trinity, We Still Need a Test Ban


This is the big anniversary year for nuclear testing. Fifty years ago, the United States set off the first explosion, called "Trinity," at White Sands missile range in New Mexico. Twenty-five years ago, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into effect.

In that treaty's preamble, the nuclear powers, including the United States, pledged "to achieve the discontinuance of all test explosions of nuclear weapons for all time and to continue negotiations to that end."

But ironically, in this anniversary year, special interest pleaders in and outside of government are urging President Clinton to abandon the goal of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and to propose instead an agreement permitting the nuclear powers to test indefinitely at levels up to 500 tons. The president should reject this counsel and stick by our NPT commitment.

The fundamental incompatibility of nuclear testing and nuclear non-proliferation was recognized even during the chilliest periods of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union based their security on mutual assured destruction. After achieving partial test ban agreements in 1963 and 1974, negotiations for a total ban by American, British and Soviet delegations came close to success during the administration of President Jimmy Carter.

However, the talks broke down after a renewed chill in U.S.-Soviet relations, which provided more weight for arguments that continued testing was required to ensure the safety and reliability of our nuclear weapons and to preserve the option to develop new nuclear weapons.

With the dissolution of the Soviet empire, these dubious arguments make even less sense today. The overriding risk to world security is the proliferation of countries possessing nuclear weapons. Resumption of underground nuclear testing can only serve to aggravate that risk.

The United States has conducted almost 2,000 nuclear tests since the first "Trinity" explosion. We have accumulated more than sufficient data to ensure the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Certainly there is no conceivable reasons to develop new types of nuclear weapons and even the suspicion that we might seek to do so would encourage potential proliferators.

Just last May, American negotiators spearheaded sustained and adroit efforts that brought about the indefinite extension of the NPT. The non-nuclear nations were told that they could rely confidently on the promise of the nuclear powers to live up to their obligations under Article VI of the NPT to pursue negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament. The resolutions on extension, which the United States warmly supported, expressly noted the goal of completing a CTBT "no later than 1996."

To renege on this promise would impugn the good faith of the United States and put the Non-Proliferation Treaty in renewed jeopardy.

The sharply critical reaction to China's nuclear test just three days after the close of the NPT renewal conference, and to France's intention to resume testing in the South Pacific highlights the world community's strong feelings on this issue.

But nuclear arms aficionados continue to tout the military value of nuclear weapons. They argue these weapons are just another item in our inventory and need to be tested regularly, like aircraft or tanks.

Early in the Clinton administration, some Defense Department officials suggested exempting nuclear tests at levels below 1,000 tons in order to develop mini-nukes for possible use against Third World troublemakers. Ignored was the fact that the putative targets would have every incentive to develop their own nuclear capability as a deterrent.

In sharp contrast, many top U.S. military leaders, including those with specific responsibility for our nuclear bombs and missiles, have characterized them as not really usable military weapons at all.

Last year, Gen. Charles A. Horner, then the commander of the U.S. Space Command, said: "The nuclear weapon is obsolete. I want to get rid of them all."

A switch in the U.S. position at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to permit testing at half a kiloton under a "comprehensive" test ban would delight the nuke buffs while distorting the English language. It would also effectively scuttle the test ban negotiations. The nuclear have-nots could hardly be expected to accept a treaty endorsing the nuclear powers' continued right to test weapons with a destructive power about a thousand times that of the largest conventional weapons.

The all-important goal of nuclear non-proliferation, the security interests of the United States and the preservation of confidence in our good faith all require that we pursue strenuously the achievement of a genuinely comprehensive nuclear test ban within the next year.

Paul C. Warnke was director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the Carter administration.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad