Fifty years ago, U.S. military leaders were preparing their annual report on the Soviet Union’s ability to inflict damage on the United States with a nuclear attack. The findings of this 1958 Net Evaluation Subcommittee report were ghastly, with "50 million dead" in the United States, most from radioactive fallout.
At that time the Cold War was in full swing and the rapidly developing technology caused great fears as to what might lie ahead. President Dwight Eisenhower sought initiatives to lessen tensions, including negotiations with the Soviets to end nuclear weapons testing.
That effort started the very long road to the 1996 comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty (CTBT) that would end all nuclear test explosions. But, to this day, the United States has not ratified the treaty.
Barack Obama or John McCain will have an opportunity to show U.S. leadership in ratifying the CTBT. The treaty would be a step toward nuclear disarmament. The fewer of these weapons the less chance of nuclear terrorism or accidents. Nuclear weapons states India and Pakistan are more likely to ratify the treaty with the U.S. taking the lead. The CTBT would also reduce the chances of a costly arms race with Russia or China which new nuclear weapons development is sure to encourage.
One area that has long been a concern is the ability to detect all nuclear weapons explosions. This is critical because a nation could try to cheat any treaty and conduct nuclear explosions in secret. The treaty calls for a system of stations across the globe that can detect a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere, underwater or underground.
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) kicked off a major study of this detection system with final results expected in 2009, not long after our new president takes office. This testing regime has already undergone some unexpected test runs. In 2006 North Korea announced it had tested a nuclear weapon. According to the CTBTO, "The announced test was well recorded throughout the world by the CTBTO's International Monitoring System (IMS). Over twenty seismic stations of the IMS located throughout the world, including one as far away as South America, detected signals originating from the event."