A Chance to Escape the Nuclear Trap : U.S. Test Ban Would Match Soviets’ and Call Their Bluff

<i> Carl Sagan is an astronomer at Cornell University. This article is adapted from his remarks to be delivered today at the Nevada Weapons Test Site. The occasion is a demonstration, organized by the American Public Health Assn., against U.S. nuclear testing</i>

The United States and the Soviet Union have contaminated our small planet with 60,000 nuclear weapons. Only a tiny fraction of them would suffice to destroy the global civilization. American and Soviet leaders agree that a nuclear war “cannot be won and must never be fought.” They agree on the necessity for massive reductions in the nuclear arsenals. As long ago as 1963 they pledged “an end to the armaments race . . . (and) the discontinuance of all test explosions of nuclear weapons for all time.”

Brave words. The reality, tragically, is different. The number of strategic nuclear weapons in the world has increased continuously since the late 1960s, and today the United States and the Soviet Union add to their strategic arsenals each year enough nuclear weapons to destroy every city on Earth. Both nations are in flagrant violation of their solemn promises.

For more than a year--since Aug. 6, 1985--the Soviet Union has unilaterally halted further testing of nuclear weapons and invited the United States to join the moratorium. The American response has been to explode about 20 nuclear weapons at the Nevada test site.

Both houses of Congress have now called for the United States to match the Soviet test moratorium. But the Reagan Administration demurs. The testing of new nuclear weapons is essential, they say.


Essential for what? If testing were to cease, the rug would be pulled out from under the development of many new weapon systems, the mindless accumulation of ever more elaborate contrivances for mass destruction. Many of the key scientists responsible for the design of American nuclear weapons have testified that nuclear explosions are not necessary for the maintenance of the existing, grotesquely bloated, nuclear arsenals. In any case, American technology is sufficiently advanced that we should be able to trust the comparative reliability of American over Soviet weapons in a comprehensive test-ban regime.

At least down to very small nuclear explosions, there is little problem in verifying such a treaty--by using distant seismic monitors, reconnaissance satellites and other so-called national technical means. And with on-site seismic devices, verification of treaty compliance is easier still. An American seismic network is now in place near the Soviet underground test center at Semipalatinsk. It clearly demonstrates at least Soviet willingness for on-site verification. Hypothetical means of evading compliance, such as exploding a nuclear weapon in a large underground cavity or testing on the far side of the sun, have ready technical answers.

It is sometimes said that the Soviet invitation to the United States to join a comprehensive test ban is only a bluff. When, in 1963, John F. Kennedy announced the unilateral U.S. halt to above-ground nuclear testing, the Soviet Union might have thought that the United States was only bluffing. If so, the Soviets called the American bluff by instituting their own unilateral moratorium, which quickly led to the 1963 limited test-ban treaty. In consequence, not a single U.S. or Soviet nuclear weapon has since been exploded on the ground, in the air or in space.

It is time for the United States to match the Soviet test moratorium. If we think that the Soviets are bluffing, it is time to call the bluff.

Of all the proposed counters to the nuclear-arms race, this is the one most easily verifiable and most readily implemented. It is time for the United States to stop testing as long as the Soviet Union does (at least for yields above a few kilotons). This is the wish of the people of the United States in public-opinion polls and in resolutions of both houses of Congress, and, it seems very clear, the desire of the vast majority of people on Earth.

By itself, it is of course not enough. It would only impede the continuance of the arms race, when the real goal is a verifiable, bilateral reversal of the arms race. But it is a vital first step. The longer the Soviet moratorium continues without an appropriate American response, the more nervous the Soviet nuclear lobby becomes, and the greater the pressure on the Soviet leadership to resume testing. We may be facing a historic opportunity to extricate ourselves from the nightmarish nuclear trap.

Today some of us will assemble at the Nevada test site, the only place on Earth where either superpower now explodes nuclear weapons, to make our wishes known. We do so in full appreciation of our constitutionally mandated right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Our grievance is simple: The government of the United States, acting in implicit collusion with the Soviet Union, has gravely endangered us all. It is time for the government of the United States, again acting in collaboration with the Soviet Union, to free us--ourselves and our descendants, our civilization and our species--from the trap that they have inadvertently set for all of us.