Tremors shake the area around the Novaya Zemlya weapons test site on a Russian island near the Arctic Circle. Moscow says it is just an earthquake. But other nations wonder: Could Russia be conducting a secret nuclear weapons test?
This incident actually occurred Aug. 16. But a United Nations agency set up to monitor nuclear tests was not called in to investigate. The reason: It still lacks the authority.
So far, 148 countries have signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which the United Nations approved just over a year ago on Sept. 24, 1996.
But all 44 nations with actual or potential nuclear capability first have to ratify the treaty before the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) can begin operation.
The new organization, based in Vienna, has already put together the basic tools to monitor suspicious events. Its executive director, Wolfgang Hoffmann, has a staff of 80, and more will be hired next year. A worldwide network of 321 monitoring stations will be built and run by host countries. The stations will continually monitor air and water as well as analyze underground samples, and information will be sent back to Vienna. If a phenomenon occurs, on-site inspections will be made to clarify whether a nuclear explosion has taken place.
In a speech to the UN last month, President Clinton vowed to push ratification of the test ban treaty, calling it "the longest-sought, hardest-fought prize in the history of arms control."
On a visit last week to South America, Mr. Clinton made a point of praising Brazil's decision to join the treaty. And this week two high-ranking US diplomats are visiting India and Pakistan, both "undeclared" nuclear powers whose ratification of the treaty is deemed crucial. The treaty is high on the US diplomats' agenda. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is expected to make a follow-up visit in November.
Meanwhile, the CTBTO continues to prepare for action. It has already held three workshops on ways to determine and measure phenomena associated with nuclear explosions. Mr. Hoffmann is looking for $68 million to run the CTBTO, of which $49 million will be needed for the global verification system consisting of a data center in Vienna, monitoring stations worldwide, and on-site inspections.
"Once the treaty is ratified by the 44 countries, not only will the five nuclear powers [the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China] not be able to modernize their nuclear arsenals [or] be able to develop new weapons, but countries suspected of having nuclear weapons will not go undetected," Hoffmann says.
"What we are doing is preventive diplomacy, building up an organization so that no one has a chance to not be globally detected" if there is a nuclear test or explosion, he says.
Close to 20 phenomena distinguish nuclear explosions from nonnuclear explosions or natural events such as earthquakes, and it will be the CTBTO's job to determine the difference.
Some kinds of nuclear tests will not violate the treaty. "Safety is the main priority of all weapons design and lab operations," explains seismologist Peter Marshall, a consultant to the CTBTO. So-called subcritical tests will be allowed "because there is no fissionable release of energy in these tests and a fission chain reaction does not occur within these materials."
Mr. Marshall says subcritical tests are primarily to ensure that weapons do not become unsafe over time. "The nuclear weapon you have today is not the same weapon that you had yesterday, simply because of the radioactive decay of the material.... There is also the problem of corrosion, what will happen to a weapon in five or 10 years time."
Some critics charge that subcritical tests will be used to create improved nuclear weapons, rather than to check safety. Hoffmann says that's doubtful.
"If it were possible for the US to develop new weapons, with [its] superior laboratory and computer power, whereas the others could not, this would have been an unequal treaty," he says. "The other four nuclear powers would not have signed the treaty. My political conclusion is that these states were of the opinion that there would be no possibility for runaway US development."
So far, only seven countries - the Czech Republic, Fiji, Japan, Micronesia, Mongolia, Qatar, and Uzbekistan - have ratified the treaty. Britain has a ratification bill working its way through Parliament. In the US, the treaty must be ratified by the Senate, where the Republican leadership has shown little interest in speeding it to the floor.
Pakistan, India, and North Korea have refused to sign the treaty. "Pakistan did not sign because India did not, but it has put its stations at the disposal of the CTBTO," Hoffmann says.
By not signing, India could conduct a nuclear test without breaking the treaty. But if the treaty is ratified, "events in countries that have not signed would not go undetected and would have negative political consequences," Hoffmann points out.