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."
The scientific analysis of the CTBT monitoring systems is crucial to having confidence that nuclear tests can be detected. However, in the end, what President Eisenhower said about detection systems may hold true. Ike stated ,"There is no system, whether it be defensive or detection or intelligence or planning or anything else, that is 100 percent perfect. What we do have to do is to refine the process to the point where we minimize risks."
Obama has already signaled his intentions to push for ratification of the CTBT should he be elected. McCain has promised to reexamine the CTBT, perhaps realizing that the U.S. may be better off living under such a treaty than without. Either Obama or McCain is going to have the golden opportunity to make history by ratifying this landmark treaty. By doing so, the next president can set the conditions for deep reduction of nuclear arsenals and perhaps, for their complete elimination.