Inching Toward Global Ban on Nuclear Testing : Clinton announcement on U.S. freeze is a major gain

The goal of an international treaty to ban all nuclear weapons tests has been brought closer with President Clinton’s announcement that he intends to make permanent the existing freeze on U.S underground nuclear explosions.

Addressing concerns that a comprehensive test ban treaty could affect American security, Clinton promised to establish an extensive safeguards program in the areas of intelligence, monitoring and verification, safe management of weapons stockpiles and maintenance of American nuclear laboratories. Further, he said, “I would be prepared, in consultation with Congress, to exercise our supreme national interest rights . . . to conduct necessary testing if the safety or reliability of our nuclear deterrent could no longer be certified.” In short, under compelling conditions underground testing could be resumed.

Whether this escape clause will satisfy those who want the United States to continue limited testing is doubtful. But Clinton has some powerful support for his decision, notably in a report prepared for the Energy Department by a panel of senior nuclear experts. That report concluded that past problems with nuclear warheads that necessitated continued testing “have been corrected and that weapons types in the enduring stockpile are safe and reliable” without additional testing. While accepting this finding, Clinton is also keeping ajar the door to future testing should international conditions or unanticipated changes in the reliability of the U.S. arsenal require it.

The U.S. decision does not guarantee universal adherence to the comprehensive test ban treaty that 38 nations have been negotiating in Geneva. But it does, at a minimum, considerably raise the moral and political costs that would have to be paid by any nuclear power that insisted on testing. The end of the Cold War and the negotiated reductions in the American and Russian nuclear arsenals that have taken place in recent years have forced a sharp redefinition of the nature of the nuclear threat. The justification for vast weapons stockpiles and for the testing programs that went along with them has all but disappeared.


France, a small-fry player in the nuclear game since the 1960s, has blundered into a posture where it has been forced to learn something about the costs of ignoring international opinion on weapons testing. Last June President Jacques Chirac announced that France would hold a series of nuclear tests, beginning in September, at its South Pacific atoll of Mururoa. It was Chirac’s way of asserting French independence, as if such a thing was necessary. Largely unanticipated were the noisy and continuing protests of countries in the area where the tests are to be conducted, especially Australia and New Zealand, which aren’t eager to see their nice neighborhood threatened by the detonations.

France says it still plans to go ahead with the tests, but Chirac now says that once they are concluded, France will renounce all further testing, even of the smallest weapons.

Without the international protests, France almost certainly would not have been ready to take this step. Because of it, and most of all because of Clinton’s welcome decision on U.S. testing, the comprehensive test ban treaty looks more and more like a sure thing. For that, humankind can be grateful.