Test Ban?

The United States Senate has passed a moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons.

By Metta Spencer

The U.S. Senate passed a water and energy bill In August with an extraordinary “rider” — a moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons. We phoned New York City to congratulate Aaron Tovish, Executive Director of Parliamentarians Global Action, whose organization works to amend the Partial Test Ban Treaty into a Comprehensive Test Ban.

Metta Spencer: Are you happy today?

Aaron Tovish: Yes! We celebrated with a party last night It’s the beginning of the end for nuclear testing! Over two-thirds of the Senate voted for it. The House voted months ago, supporting it by 230 to 160. Next, these bills go into conference before being sent to the President, because the House and the Senate versions are different The House says no money shall be expended for a year for testing. It leaves completely open what will happen afterwards. The Senate version says no testing for nine months, after which time a few tests can be conducted for safety purposes. Then no testing after 1996 if Russia is not testing and if a multilateral Comprehensive lest Ban Treaty (CTB) has been achieved.

Spencer: You weren’t expecting this component?

Tovish: No, it was brokered only at the last minute.

Spencer: I am surprised that there are not big headlines about it

Tovish: I am too. It sets up a confrontation between Congress and the President at a time when the issue in the elections is Bush’s difficulty in working with Congress. I have the results from a recent poll showing broad support for a CTB in the United States: 66% approve and 28% disapprove.

Spencer: Will Bush veto it?

Tovish: When it comes out of conference, the bill may have money for the supercollider. The House was against giving money for that, so if he vetoes it, he may not get money for the supercollider, which he needs for Texas. If he can’t win Texas, he can’t win, period. If he does veto it, it would be difficult to over-ride his veto, but it will expose how out of step he is. Clinton will make it an election issue. That will put Clinton more on record to follow up with test ban negotiations, and the next Congress-assuming that this contributes to Bush’s defeat-can pass a moratorium. Or if Bush doesn’t veto it, we’re on our way.

Spencer: They want a multilateral CTBT in place by 1996. Do you think they will go about getting it the way you prefer-by amending the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTB)?

Tovish: ‘The bill didn’t specify how this multilateral treaty should be achieved. People in Congress are well aware of the amendment option, but there will be a lot of factors. China and France are not parties to the Partial lest Ban. At some point you’d want to bring China in.

Spencer: The Chinese have always said that when everybody else stops testing, they’ll stop too.

Tovish: Yeah, I don’t see a problem there. And France is now on board. Maybe the action will really take off in the Conference on Disarmament, but if they use the CTBT amendment process instead, the entry-into-force provisions are much stronger than simply recruiting countries, one by one, to ratify a new treaty. As soon as half the countries ratify it, including Russia, the U.S., and Britain, it goes into effect for all of them. And when each country signs a treaty, it’s pledging to abide by it immediately.

Spencer: How seriously do people take the argument that some testing is necessary for safety?

Tovish: Unfortunately, they take it much too seriously. ‘The military themselves have said that the weapons they have are safe enough. They are at odds with the labs on this. ‘The labs try to cook up any reason they can for continuing to test. ‘They could make a somewhat safer weapon. But the military are saying “We know how to handle the ones we’ve got now. We’ve changed the procedures to make them safer, so don’t fix it if it’s not broken.” Besides, in the process of making this change, other risks are incurred. The main risk that nuclear weapons present to the world is that they will be used. The second risk occurs when they are tested. By far the tertiary risk is that they will he mishandled and an accident will result. So they argue for spending a major amount of money doing dangerous things, supposedly to reduce risk, even when that money could be better used to reduce more serious risks.

Spencer: How is this legislation going to affect production?

Tovish: There were no current plans for acquisition of nuclear weapons, so there will be no immediate impact. The labs were working on designs that would ultimately have gone into production: the earth penetrator; the infra-red; mini-nukes. Until recently they were working on the X-ray but that was cancelled. These would have required more testing before they could have been sold and put into production. Now there will simply be no prospect of new nuclear weapons. That’s why we always wanted a test ban. They could still make old weapons, but they are eliminating old weapons, not making them.

While they have no cur-rent plans to produce nuclear weapons, they haven’t yet recognized the value of getting a binding international agreement against them. The Non-Proliferation Treaty does not affect the countries that haven’t signed onto it. So if the U.S. simply takes this action and doesn’t follow through with negotiations toward a non-discriminatory treaty for non-acquisition of nuclear weapons, it will leave the door open to all the nuclear powers and to all the “threshold nuclear powers”-the nations that are now developing such weapons.

Spencer: So that’s what will be the focus of your work next?

Tovish: Yes. A lot of other groups are interested in that also. Members of Congress are getting interested.

Spencer: Before the NPT expires in 1995, we have to make some plans.

Tovish: A lot of people say: Don’t rock the boat, let’s just extend the NPT; I say, yes, let’s extend the NPT but let’s set a higher goal. Let’s aim for the next phase, the post-Cold War nonproliferation measures. That should prohibit acquiring nuclear weapons and provide a system of verification well beyond what the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) does. Let’s get a serious regime in place. It’ll be a universal norm: Everybody get out of the nuclear weapons business!

Spencer: How would you do that? Would you renegotiate the NPT?

Tovish: No, we need an agreement between the threshold states and the nuclear states that brings their policies into line with the NPT; I think that right now, the preferred approach is to leave the NPT alone. You might want to tighten up the IAEA, but you don’t need to do anything to the NPT for that.

Spencer: what about the arguments about verification?

Tovish: The instruments for detecting underground explosions are so excellent now that you no longer hear such arguments!

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1992

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1992, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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