It takes some guts to come to a nuclear test ban meeting and to announce upcoming tests, but the United States did that without batting an eyelid.

At the Science and Technology (SnT 2023) conference that is underway, organised by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO), the US Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Jill Hruby, announced that her country would conduct two “subcritical” tests in 2024 and three more later.

These tests, she said, would have some nuclear material, notably Plutonium, but would not result in a nuclear chain reaction. She added that such tests are necessary to ensure that the weapons are safe and mentioned that one of the objectives of the tests is to find out whether the aging of Plutonium would have any effect on the efficacy of the weapons.

The US is among the eight of the 44 countries whose signature and Parliament ratification are necessary for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which opened up for signatures in 1996, to enter into force. The treaty’s “ultimate goal”, as stated in the preamble, is the “elimination of nuclear weapons and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”.

India, along with Pakistan and North Korea, has not signed the treaty. China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and the United States have signed the treaty but have not yet ratified it – a situation that has stood still for over a decade.

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Hruby’s announcement of upcoming nuclear tests has given rise to two opposite viewpoints.

Robert Floyd, the Executive Secretary of the CTBTO, the organisation that is essentially meant to bring the treaty into force and run monitoring stations, told visiting Indian journalists that “sub-critical tests”, which would not result in a nuclear chain reaction”, are not dissonant with the treaty.

The basic test of whether or not a nuclear test is allowed under the treaty or not is whether the test results in a nuclear explosion or not. The words “an end to all nuclear explosions” are clearly mentioned in the preamble.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh

Ali Asghar Soltanieh

However, the opposite view has been put forth by Ali Asghar Soltanieh, a nuclear physicist and a former Ambassador of Iran to the International Atomic Energy Agency, CTBTO, and a former Iranian delegate at the NPT (Non-proliferation Treaty) conferences, believes that the said interpretation is incorrect since the subcritical experiments and tests are part of modernisations of US nuclear weapons and promotions of their efficacy, they provoke other nuclear weapons states to follow suit, forcing remaining ones in Annex –II of Treaty to think twice on ratification of the Treaty, therefore tests are in full contravention with the spirit and letter of the CTBT.

“Look at the preamble,” Soltanieh told journalists, pointing to the words “constraining the development and qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons and ending the development of advanced new types of nuclear weapons”, as an “effective measure of nuclear disarmament.”

The US tests—subcritical or otherwise—and the fact that in US NPR (Nuclear Posture Review) and the statement in this conference US officially declare that they are “Ready to conduct nuclear tests”, are “a matter of serious concern” to the world, he said. He added that even if the US has not ratified the treaty—the fact that it has signed the treaty obliges the country not to conduct any sort of nuclear tests, including simulations.

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Hruby and other US officials at the conference stress that the US has been and will be “transparent”, notifying the CTBTO about any test, but Soltanieh laughs at it. “Transparency is not about showing the vessels and cables to some visitors at Los Alamos Laboratory,” he told Indian journalists here, “but will they share the data (thrown up by the tests)?”

Whether the United States is following the inchoate treaty in letter and spirit or is hiding behind legal technicalities is still an open question, but clearly, the US position has not helped the treaty get into force—even leaving aside that the polarised political atmosphere in the US rules out ratification any time soon. This emboldens countries like India to sign the treaty.

India’s position

India’s official position, as articulated at a United Nations Security Council meeting in September 2021, by the then Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, is that the treaty does not address the country’s “core concerns”. But clearly, India believes the CTBT is a sister of the other treaty, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which India believes to be discriminatory.

Also, an unspoken stand of India is that it should get something in return for signing the CTBT.

Floyd told Indian journalists that he was “very keen to engage with India”, for which he had not had an opportunity in the last two years after he became the CTBTO Executive Secretary.

(This writer was at SnT 2023 conference in Vienna at the invitation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation)