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White House Not Rushing Forward on Test Ban Treaty

By Martin Matishak

Global Security Newswire

(May. 6) -A 1953 nuclear test in Nevada. The Obama administration has no firm schedule for pursuing ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a White House official said yesterday (Nevada Environmental Protection Division photo). (May. 6) -A 1953 nuclear test in Nevada. The Obama administration has no firm schedule for pursuing ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a White House official said yesterday (Nevada Environmental Protection Division photo).

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration does not have a schedule in place for when it will seek ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a White House official said yesterday (see GSN, April 2).

"While I'm optimistic that we will gain ratification, we don't have a time line right now," Jon Wolfsthal, the U.S. National Security Council's nonproliferation director, said during an event at the Brookings Institution.

The delay is due in part to the White House preparations for submitting the newly minted U.S.-Russian "New START" nuclear arms control pact to the Senate for approval, according to Wolfsthal, who also serves as special adviser for nonproliferation to Vice President Joseph Biden.

Administration officials are also readying themselves for what many experts believe will be a difficult task in obtaining approval of the test ban treaty and waiting to see "what the political dynamics of the Senate are," he added. It remains questionable whether the Senate would support the pact, which it previously rejected more than a decade ago.

The United Nations in 1996 adopted the treaty, which now has 182 member nations. The United States is one of 44 "Annex 2" countries that must ratify the pact before it can enter into force. It is also among nine holdouts; the others are China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan

Indonesia recently announced it would ratify the document and encouraged other nations to do the same (see GSN, May 5).

The United States has observed a self-imposed moratorium on atomic bomb tests since 1992. Washington yesterday joined the four other recognized nuclear powers -- China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom -- in declaring that it had no intention of conducting further nuclear tests.

"We reaffirm our determination to abide by our respective moratoria on nuclear test explosions before entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and call on all states to refrain from conducting a nuclear test explosion," the five said in a joint statement issued at the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference at the United Nations in New York (see GSN, May 5). "The moratoria, though important, are not a substitute for legally binding commitments under the CTBT. We will continue our efforts aimed at early entry into force of the CTBT and achieving its universality and call upon all states that have not yet done so to sign and ratify this treaty."

Speaking in Prague last year, President Barack Obama announced he would "immediately and aggressively" pursue Senate ratification of the treaty and work with other countries to make the prohibition of nuclear test blasts the global norm.

The treaty needs 67 votes on Capitol Hill to be ratified by the United States. When lawmakers last considered the pact in 1999, opponents argued it would prohibit tests that might be necessary to verify the reliability of the U.S. arsenal. Following the cessation of nuclear testing, the United States established the Stockpile Stewardship Program, which works without conducting nuclear tests to assure that the country's nuclear weapons would perform as expected (see GSN, March 29).

Critics also suspect that other nations could conduct secret nuclear test blasts without being detected, undermining the nonproliferation benefit of the treaty. Supporters say that a verification system that includes hundreds of monitors of various types would prevent such occurrences, as proven by the detection of North Korea's nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

Yesterday, Wolfsthal said administration officials are "very mindful that despite now 18 years of evidence that we can maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal without nuclear testing -- and 18 years of evidence that we can detect other countries' nuclear explosive activities -- that we have to educate and work with the members of the Congress to give them that same comfort level."

"In today's environment we don't think that's going to happen tomorrow, or the next day," he told the audience. "We also know that we have the immediate priority of ratifying the New START treaty."

The White House is expected to submit that agreement, along with other relevant documents, to Congress for review in the near future. The ratification process for the arms control deal "will take us through the legislative year," Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher said yesterday at the NPT conference.

The new treaty requires the former Cold War adversaries to lower their respective strategic arsenals to 1,550 deployed warheads. Each country's fielded nuclear delivery vehicles -- missiles, submarines and bombers -- would be capped at 700, with another 100 allowed in reserve.

Tauscher said that the test ban treaty would be submitted to the Senate "when the political conditions are right," according to Agence France-Presse.

Wolfsthal said he hopes the review of the U.S.-Russian agreement will help senators -- many of whom have not dealt with an arms control treaty during their time in the upper chamber -- "rebuild their muscle memory in terms of how to go about this debate."

"It has been a number of years ... where we haven't looked at a lot of these types of questions," the NSC nonproliferation chief added. "How has our verification capabilities improved over the last 11 years? They have demonstrably. We have to quantify that. How has our ability to maintain our arsenal improved over that time period?"

He did not specify how the administration would go about making the case for ratification with lawmakers. Its job could become more difficult if Republicans pick up additional seats in the Senate in the November midterm elections.

Wolfsthal said he is "very comfortable" that officials responsible for overseeing the stockpile -- including Energy Secretary Steven Chu, National Nuclear Security Administration chief Thomas D'Agostino and the national laboratory directors -- will all be "extremely strong" in their support for the existing stockpile management program and state that atomic testing is not necessary.

"We hope that once New START is completed we can move on to really engaging the Senate is a serious way," he said.

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