Strengthening the Moratoria on Nuclear Test Explosions

For half a century, at Semipalatinsk and at the Nevada Test site, nuclear weapon explosives tests dotted the landscape and shook the Earth. All told, 928 tests were conducted at the grounds of the Nevada Test Site and 456 at Semipalatinsk, and many more elsewhere. 

One of the many boreholes burrowed underground at the Semipalantinsk site where nuclear explosive devices were tested up until 1989. [Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory]

Rival scientists from the U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons laboratories used these testing proving grounds, including the one just 800 kilometers from here, to prove and showcase their powerful new weapons designs. Every month, new holes for nuclear weapons were burrowed into sides of mountains or lowered by “racks” deep in the Earth, all in support of a Cold War arms race that spanned decades. 

Steadily, we have made progress in reducing nuclear dangers since the Cuban Missile Crisis when the United States and the former Soviet Union were brought to the nuclear brink. The Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) of 1963 made it so that the skies over the United States, Kazakhstan, and the rest of the globe, would no longer be clouded by harmful radiation from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. The end of the Cold War was soon followed by a moratorium on all U.S. and Russian nuclear explosives testing. Today, only one state -- North Korea -- continues nuclear testing, despite overwhelming international pressure and condemnation. All of these changes occurred as Kazakhstan won its independence a quarter century ago, soon emerging as a global nonproliferation leader, a distinction that Secretary Kerry was quick to note in his visit to Astana last fall.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with President Nursultan Nazarbayev while meeting in the Gold Room at Ak Orda Presidential Palace in Astana, Kazakhstan, November 2, 2015. [State Department photo]

The United States, in concert with allies and partners like Kazakhstan, has achieved remarkable progress on a number of fronts since the end of the Cold War, including the elimination of much of the U.S. and former Soviet nuclear stockpiles. Progress has continued since President Obama’s landmark 2009 speech in Prague: we have reduced our deployed stockpiles and launchers through the New START Treaty, diminished the role of nuclear weapons in our security strategy, strengthened the tools and structures to prevent nuclear terrorism, and secured the Iran deal to block all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon. 

President Obama has proposed to make even further progress. In Berlin in 2013, he unveiled a proposal to seek further reductions up to one-third below those levels in the New START Treaty in a manner that takes stock of what capabilities would be required to maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent. As we have continued to make clear, progress in that direction requires a willing partner and a strategic environment conducive to further reductions.

During a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on June 19, 2013, President Obama discussed his efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. [AP photo]

We are also working actively to begin negotiations on a treaty that would halt the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons. Such a treaty, when combined with an in-force Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), would be fundamental to stopping arms races in their tracks and constitutes an essential step that can lay the foundation toward a global reduction in the number of nuclear weapons. Pending entry into force of the CTBT, we call on all states to maintain the moratoria on nuclear explosive tests. Sustaining these moratoria is in the national security interest of the United States, as well as that of the entire world. 

The United States is engaging Members of the UN Security Council on a resolution that would emphasize the importance of maintaining these moratoria and would build support for the completion of the Treaty’s verification regime, based on the International Monitoring System.

Even as the United States builds upon decades of pragmatic steps to reduce the role and number of its nuclear weapons, a group of countries are pursuing a polarizing and unverifiable nuclear weapons ban treaty that could actually end up harming the proven, practical, and inclusive efforts that have achieved tangible results on disarmament and will continue to do so. We know that nuclear disarmament can only be achieved through an approach that takes into account the views and the security interests of all states.

Let us agree that we share a common goal and recommit to the roadmap we are on, one that has proven results. Together we can make true the hope expressed by President Obama in Hiroshima: to refocus “the wonders of science on improving life, rather than destroying it.”

About the Author: Anita Friedt serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance.

Editor's Note: This blog post is excerpted from Friedt’s public remarks at a Conference in Astana, Kazakstan on August 29, 2016. 

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Experts take measurements during an exercise at the former nuclear test site of Semipalatinsk, northeastern Kazakhstan.
Posted by Anita E. Friedt
September 1, 2016

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