News And Updates


Building a Nuclear Weapon Free World

Daniel B. Poneman
Centrus President & CEO
Remarks as Prepared for
International Conference: Building a Nuclear Weapon Free World
Astana, Kazakhstan

It is a challenge to make a unique contribution with such a large and expert panel.  What can I say that will be new or interesting, yet relevant?  And unlike many others on the stage, I cannot speak on behalf of a government, or an international organization, or a non-governmental organization.  I am merely a private citizen.

But the role of the citizen – the voice of the citizen – is relevant and even essential to this conference and its purpose.  Because when it comes to existential threats to the world – such as nuclear terror or catastrophic climate change – those threats directly relate to every citizen the world over.  So when it comes to deciding what to do to combat those threats, the voice of every citizen deserves to be heard. And given the scale and gravity of the threat, it will require the collective power of citizens, acting together, to take effective action.

While this panel focuses on a nuclear test ban and the role of the UN, I will leave others to discuss the UN’s role and will confine my remarks to the value and verifiability of a test ban.  Because if we cannot establish a consensus in support of those two aspects of a test ban, then my hunch is that the UN’s challenge may be insurmountable, as the ratifications needed to bring the CTBT into force will be impossible to achieve.

Many here will recall that in 1999, when the US Senate considered ratification of the CTBT, both the value and the verifiability were challenged.  Some argued that the CTBT would unacceptably constrain the U.S. ability to sustain a safe, secure, effective nuclear deterrent without physical testing.  Others questioned whether the ban could be effective the absence of a system with sufficient coverage and effective technology to detect cheating.

Let’s consider how things look today, 20 years after the CTBT was negotiated and 17 years after that Senate debate.

First, it is important to analyze the CTBT based on a realistic assessment of national security interests.  From that perspective, I believe that the premise and value of the CTBT is strong and can be persuasively demonstrated. Nuclear weapons present an existential threat to humanity.  It is in our collective self-interest to minimize the number of actors that have demonstrated workable nuclear weapons, or that have the confidence in their initial designs that can only come from testing.  Like it or not, states that have already tested nuclear weapons have that confidence.

The bottom line is that, without testing, you do not have the confidence that your weapon will work, and you do not get the political benefit of demonstrating to the world that you possess working weapons.  So if the CTBT strengthens the global norm against nuclear testing, then all of our national security interests will be enhanced.

Moreover, with or without a CTBT, the United States has already been subject to a moratorium on physical nuclear weapon tests since 1992.  There is no sign that is going to change.  So a CTBT would simply codify the status quo.

Now if you believe, as I do, in the continued importance of nuclear deterrence as a nonproliferation tool in general and, in particular, the benefit of the extended deterrent we provide our allies to give them confidence that they do not need to develop their own nuclear weapons, then you do need to ask whether the CTBT will threaten the safety or reliability of the US nuclear deterrent.   The first thing to remember in answering this question is that before 1992, the United States conducted over 1,000 nuclear tests.  We have mountains of data on the reliability and performance of our weapons.

In addition, since 1996, the United States has pursued a robust stockpile stewardship program that has made enormous progress in the simulation of nuclear weapons in the absence of physical testing. There is no better authority than the nuclear physicist and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz on this, and he has said that the stockpile stewardship program “has been successful beyond all expectations.”  Under that program, for each of the last 19 years, the secretaries of defense and energy, advised by the Nuclear Weapons Council, the national lab directors, and the commander of U.S. StratCom, have certified that the US stockpile is safe and reliable.

A 2012 report by the National Academy of Sciences also concluded that the United States has the technical capability to maintain a safe and reliable stockpile for the foreseeable future without needing explosive testing, if the right resources are dedicated to the task.

And President Obama, while articulating a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, has repeatedly made clear, including through the Nuclear Posture Review, that the U.S. will retain a credible deterrent.  We just don’t need physical testing any more.

So the basic premise of the CTBT is still valid.

And what about verification? How do we know that some won’t cheat? No one here is naive, and cheating is always a risk for every treaty.  The question is whether cheating can happen at a level that threatens the premise and value of the treaty.  And while certainty is never possible, tremendous progress has been made in the area of verification since 1996.  The International Monitoring System has gone from concept to reality – with an extensive network of sensors operating in the United States and around the world.

How good is that network?

Again, I can think of no better authority than Energy Secretary Moniz, who said, “The International Monitoring System for verifying compliance with the CTBT has developed and matured to the point that nuclear explosive testing by anyone, even at very low yields, will be detected.”

So the CTBT will create barriers to new states possessing nuclear weapons. The worldwide system it has spawned will make it extremely difficult to cheat without detection.  And the treaty will not compromise the effectiveness of the U.S. deterrent that protects our nation and our allies.

These are tough issues, and will not yield to bold claims unsupported by logic or evidence, or to dogmatic assertions.  They require thought, analysis, argument and persuasion.  It is time to engage this debate directly, and robustly, and to get on with it.

Thank you.

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