CTBT future unclear

The U.S. Senate debate leading to a vote on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) ratification may take place as early as October 12. The vote was scheduled by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) last week. Prior to that, the Central Intelligence Agency released a new assessment claiming that it could not monitor low-level nuclear tests by Russia precisely enough to ensure compliance with the CTBT.

CTBT was opened for signatures on September 24, 1996. As of September 29, 1999, 154 nations, including five nuclear-weapon states – Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States – have signed, but China, Russia and the United States, have not yet ratified it. The Treaty postulates that 44 states must deposit their instruments of ratification for it to enter into force. So far, 23 have nations have ratified the CTBT.

The Clinton Administration and its allies in Congress have tried to get a vote on the CTBT for the past two years without success. But suddenly, the Republican majority has abruptly decided to bring it to the floor. Majority leader Trent Lott also suggests not to debate the treaty until the year 2001, if it is not be ratified now by the Senate.

The debate on the CTBT was revived with a new assessment by CIA that said that it had a long-standing concern about the difficulty of gathering data on low-level nuclear tests. The recent experiments conducted by Russia – and others performed in 1998 – prompted a reevaluation. The two recent events at the Russian test site at Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic – Russia calls them subcritical tests – fall into a gray area where it cannot be reliably distinguished whether Treaty-compliance is indeed achieved.

This very point is underscored by the Republicans, who claim that the U.S. is not capable to verify the compliance with the CTBT, making the treaty worthless, because Russia, China and other nations have a history of denial and deception on nuclear testing.

One the other hand, the Clinton Administration argues that the treaty would provide new tools to detect testing that would help remedy the weaknesses in U.S. capabilities. The Administration also says that Russian President Boris Yeltsin has stood by his 1997 promise to conduct only subcritical tests, which contain the ingredients of a nuclear bomb, but fizzle out without any thermonuclear blast and are not supposed to be accompanied by radioactive emissions. The United States also has used subcritical tests to evaluate the condition of nuclear weapons and plans to conduct one this autumn.

Pre-election rush
The abrupt Republican change of mind which lead to a sudden intention to vote on the test ban treaty after two years of stalling is considered by many as pure politics in a pre-election season. The CTBT has weak chances of winning the two-thirds majority required for ratification in the Senate, where its Republican opponents hold a 55-45 seat advantage over Democrats. This caused Treaty supporters to back off and require more time to make their case and lobby opponents and undecided Senators. Lott and other Treaty foes, led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), are rejoicing being able to point out the inconsistencies in the Democrats’ position – first pushing for a vote, now asking for more time. The Treaty enjoys public support, however.

It is expected that Democrats will stall the vote this time, while the perspectives for future votes remain unclear.