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Nuke Trial, Meteorite Highlight Test Ban Treaty Capabilities
WASHINGTON -- A widely anticipated North Korean nuclear test and a surprise meteorite flyover have brought fresh attention to the capabilities of the organization formed to monitor the globe for secret atomic explosions.
The Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization used its International Monitoring System to quickly discern that a Feb. 12 seismic event was produced by North Korea’s third underground atomic blast. Three days later, the detection web picked up the infrasonic waves coming from the space rock that exploded above Siberia.
“Yup, the CTBTO’s IMS has been hard at work,” said Daryl Kimball of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.
Tibor Tóth, who heads the Vienna, Austria-based treaty body, described the North’s nuclear test as a “tragic opportunity to demonstrate the capabilities of the seismic” stations that make up a key part of the International Monitoring System.
The complex today encompasses 274 certified sites around the world intended to detect signs of an illicit nuclear detonation. Each station employs technology for identifying one of four effects of an atomic test -- earth movement, the release of radioactive particles, or sound waves passing through water or air.
Ultimately, 337 facilities are to be installed in service of treaty that supporters say would outlaw a key step in the development of new or more advanced nuclear weapons. Nearly 17 years after being opened for signature, the accord has not entered into force.
U.S. skeptics, in making their case against the pact, have cited doubts about the technologies’ capacity to actually identify cheating states. The International Monitoring System “is a tool, it is not a verification regime,” said Baker Spring, a national security research fellow with the Heritage Foundation.
The United States is one of eight nations that must still gain legislative approval for the pact to become the global rule of law. Washington’s ratification is seen as key to drawing at least some of the other outlier governments -- China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan -- into the test ban regime.
North Korea has been the only state to set off nuclear devices in this century, previously in 2006 and 2009. Tóth’s agency has touted its rapid detection and response to both events.
Satellite surveillance indicated since late 2012 that the Stalinist state appeared to be ramping up preparations for another try at its Punggye-ri test site. Pyongyang had also not been shy about announcing its intentions.
On Feb. 12, as many as 25 CTBT seismic monitoring sites across the globe initially identified “a seismic event with explosion-like characteristics” just before 3 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time, according to a CTBTO release. Information was provided to treaty member nations slightly more than an hour later, ahead of Pyongyang’s official declaration.
Technical staff determined the event site to be consistent with the location of Pyongyang's prior nuclear tests, with a margin of error of roughly 10 miles, and cited the resulting earthquake as registering 5.0 on the Richter scale. Those figures by the end of the week were refined to a 4.9 magnitude and a location certainty with a margin of error of about 5 miles.
In total, 94 seismic stations and two infrasound facilities registered the nuclear test.
The IMS technology got another workout on Feb. 15, when 17 CTBT infrasound stations identified low-frequency sound waves from the meteorite that blew apart over the Ural Mountains in Russia. “Subaudible” sound was picked up by a facility in Antarctica, more than 9,000 miles away.
“What the results in the last few days show … is that the system works,” Kimball said in a telephone interview with Global Security Newswire. “That’s not the only evidence that makes that clear.”
He noted the 2012 National Research Council report that determined that detection technology deployed by the treaty agency and the United States would make it difficult for any nation to conduct a nuclear test without being detected. The expert analysis also asserted that the United States could maintain a safe, secure and reliable nuclear arsenal as long as it ensured “sufficient resources and a national commitment to stockpile stewardship.”
Those were the primary concerns that led the Senate to reject the treaty in 1999.
President Obama cited treaty ratification among his nuclear nonproliferation goals in his widely noted April 2009 speech in Prague. The administration has not yet begun a formal campaign for Senate approval, focusing first on informing lawmakers and their staff on the issue.
Press releases on the latest CTBT technical findings will probably not be decisive in any ratification campaign, Kimball said. They do add to the body of evidence in support of approval, he argued.
“The capability of the system … is practically to rally countries behind the norm [against nuclear testing] because they know what happened and no one can claim that there is an absence of information or knowledge about this event,” Tóth said in a Friday interview with GSN.
In Washington, the president must lead the push for treaty approval, according to Kimball.
Obama is not likely to set his nonproliferation policy priorities until his second-term Cabinet is fully in place, he said, adding that a high-level task force or senior coordinator might be required to pursue a sustained campaign with the Senate.
The Senate Republican Conference referred questions on its stance on CTBT ratification to the Senate Republican Policy Committee, which by press time had not responded to a request for comment.
Spring said ultimately there are “zero prospects” for persuading all of the remaining holdout nations to accept the pact. That does not change following recent detection developments, he asserted.
“I think that the question of the use of the monitoring system, particularly for the purpose of detecting nuclear explosives tests … is going to be pretty negligible,” Spring said.
He suggested that some issue-watchers are likely to continue seeing vulnerabilities in the monitoring system.
The absence of findings of radioactive particles or chemical elements such as xenon from the North’s test leaves unanswered a key question of whether plutonium was used again or if the regime for the first time set off a device fueled by highly enriched uranium. Doubts about the monitoring system’s effectiveness could persist if that remains ambiguous, Spring added.
Nations looking to test nuclear weapons without detection could set off an extremely low-yield detonation or use strategies such as decoupling -- detonating the device in a large, underground chamber.
Tóth acknowledged that no radionuclide releases have yet been detected in the days since the atomic trial. He noted, though, that no materials “vented” in a number of U.S. and Russian underground tests in past decades, making measurement impossible.
Radionuclides were identified after the 2006 North Korean nuclear test, but not three years later.
It could take weeks to identify any radionuclides that might have escaped the underground test chamber, Tóth’s organization said in a release.
“These tests shouldn’t be done [but] … the system is robust enough to alert the international community,” Tóth said.
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