International Day Against Nuclear Tests: Translating Words Into Action

By Daryl G. Kimball

August 29, 2011 is the second official International Day Against Nuclear Tests. It coincides with the 20th anniversary of the historic events that led to the closure of the former Soviet nuclear test site of Semipalatinsk, where more than 456 explosions contaminated the land and its inhabitants.

Citizens of the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan protest nuclear weapons testing at the Soviet nuclear testing site near Semipalatinsk in August, 1989. Photo by Yuri Kuidin.

The courageous efforts of the Kazakh people and their allies forced Moscow’s communist regime to halt nuclear weapons testing and catalyzed actions elsewhere around the globe that eventually led to a  U.S. nuclear testing halt and the negotiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The job of addressing the damage caused by nuclear testing and achieving a permanent and verifiable ban on all nuclear testing is, however incomplete.

As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on August 25: “We urgently need new progress in achieving a world free of both nuclear tests and nuclear weapons,” Ban said. “Current voluntary moratoriums on nuclear weapon tests are valuable, yet they are no substitute for a global ban,” he stated.

The August 29 commemoration should spur nongovernmental organizations and policymakers to redouble stalled efforts to secure entry into force of the CTBT and improve programs to better understand and responsibly address the health and environmental damage caused by past nuclear testing.

A Trigger for the Anti-Nuclear Test Explosion Cause

The efforts of Kazakh people to force the Russian nuclear establishment to halt test explosion is an amazing and important part of the history of the nuclear age.

One of the key triggering events occurred in February 1989 when the renowned poet Olzhas Suleimenov used a live national television appearance to describe fresh reports of radioactive contamination at the Soviet’s Semipalatinsk Test Site and call upon his fellow citizens to meet in Alma Ata to discuss how to respond.

Five-thousand people responded and collectively issued a call for closing the test site, ending nuclear weapons production, and a universal ban on testing. The movement, which became known as Nevada-Semipalatinsk, grew and held demonstrations throughout Kazakhstan and later in Russia.

On August 6, 1989, 50,000 people attended one of its rallies, which was the largest independent event of its type in the former Soviet Union. Eventually over a million people signed its antinuclear weapons testing petition.

In August 1989, Suleimenov pushed the Supreme Soviet to adopt a resolution calling for a U.S.-Soviet test moratorium. The movement also worked to prevent Moscow from simply shifting all Soviet nuclear testing to the other main test site at Novaya Zemlya in far northern Russia. To appease the growing protests, Moscow would later acknowledge it had cancelled 11 out of 18 planned nuclear tests.

In May 1990, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement teamed up for an International Citizens Congress that brought together 300 delegates, including members of the Western Shoshone nation (which has legal claim to the U.S. test site in Nevada),  downwinders and disarmament leaders, from 25 countries to Alma Ata. A crowd of 20,000 gathered in support. Before the conference convened, Dr. Bernard Lown of IPPNW and Suleimenov met with Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze to reinstitute an earlier Soviet test moratorium.

Under pressure from President Nazarbayev, the people of Kazakhstan, and the international disarmament community, then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would authorize only one more test (in Russia) and then declare a moratorium on October 5, 1991, prompting U.S. legislators, including Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Oreg.), George Mitchell (D-Me.), Rep. Mike Kopetski (D-Oreg.) and Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) to introduce nuclear test moratorium legislation in Congress.

With strong grassroots support in the United States, the legislation gathered momentum and support and was later modified to mandate a 9-month U.S. testing halt and negotiations on a CTBT. The legislation was approved  by the House and Senate in September 1992. The last U.S. nuclear test explosion was conducted on September 23, 1992.

The weapons test that wasn't. The tower for the cancelled "Icecap" nuclear test that would have been detonated in late-1992. Photo by NNSA/Nevada Site Office

The following year, U.S. nongovernmental organizations and legislators successfully pressed President Clinton to indefinitely extend the U.S. test moratorium in July 1993 and launch multilateral negotiations on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. With the help of international protests over French and Chinese nuclear testing in 1995 and 1996, NGOs exerted strong pressure on governments negotiating the treaty at the Conference on Disarmament to pursue a zero-yield test ban and to complete talks by the end of 1996.

The actions of the people of Kazakhstan and other test ban opponents are but one dramatic example of how civil society leaders have raised awareness about the dangers of nuclear weapons and demanded that their governments act decisively to permanently halt nuclear weapons testing.

As UN nations mark the second official International Day Against Nuclear Tests, we should recognize the courageous efforts of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement and generations of other citizen activists and leaders, which have been the driving force behind governmental effort to permanently and verifiably bring an end to all nuclear test explosions.

Accelerating CTBT Entry Into Force

Although the CTBT was opened for signature fifteen years ago this month, our work is far from complete.

By banning all nuclear weapon test explosions, the CTBT prevents the established nuclear-weapon states from proof-testing new, more sophisticated warhead designs. Without the option of nuclear explosive testing, newer members of the club cannot perfect smaller, more easily deliverable warheads.

With the CTBT in force, global and national capabilities to detect and deter possible clandestine nuclear testing by other states will be significantly greater. Entry-into-force is essential to making short-notice, on-site inspections possible and maintaining long-term political and financial support from other nations for the operation of the International Monitoring System and International Data Center.

One-hundred eighty-two states have signed the CTBT, but the treaty must still be ratified by nine remaining hold out states—the United States, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, Indonesia, Egypt, and North Korea—before it can formally enter into force.

In three weeks, CTBT states parties will gather at the UN for the Article XIV Conference on Facilitating CTBT Entry Into Force.

Such efforts are important, but actions speak louder than words. Governments must work harder to make that conference more effective by following it up with a serious diplomatic action plan for getting the remaining hold out states on board.

The United States and China

Ratification by the United States and China is particularly important. Given their existing nuclear test moratoria and 1996 signature of the CTBT, Washington and Beijing already bear most CTBT-related responsibilities, yet their failure to ratify has denied them—and others—the full security benefits of CTBT entry into force.

In April 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama’s pledged to “immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.” He said, “After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.” We agree.

But now, President Obama must translate those lofty words into action and mount a serious public campaign to win the support of two-thirds of the U.S. Senate for ratification of the treaty without conditions.

To date, the Obama administration has done too little. With the support of a wide array of NGOs in the United States and around the globe the Obama administration can and must explain how and why the Treaty enhances international security, is effectively verifiable, and is essential to curb the spread of nuclear weapons in the future.

To indicate the seriousness of his intention to do so, President Obama should promptly name a senior, high-level White House coordinator for the CTBT effort.

The technical and political case for the CTBT is even stronger than it was in 1999 when the Senate failed to provide its advice and consent for ratification. What is necessary is the political will to pursue ratification and willingness by all Senators to review the new evidence in support of the treaty rather than arrive at judgments based on old information or misinformation.

It is also time for China’s leaders to finally act on the CTBT. For years, Chinese government representatives have reported that the CTBT is before the National People’s Congress for consideration but has apparently taken no action. The January 19, 2011 Joint Statement by President Hu Jintao and President Barack Obama stating that “… both sides support early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.”

Washington’s renewed pursuit of CTBT ratification opens up opportunities for China and other Annex 2 states—such as Indonesia—to lead the way toward entry into force by ratifying before the United States does. Action by Beijing would increase its credibility as a nonproliferation leader and improve the chances that other states in Asia, as well as the United States, would follow suit.

India and Pakistan

India and Pakistan could advance the cause of nuclear disarmament and substantially ease regional tensions by converting their unilateral test moratoria into a legally binding commitment to end nuclear testing through the CTBT.

Unfortunately, since their tit-for-tat nuclear tests in 1998 that were condemned by the UN Security Council in Resolution 1172, neither India nor Pakistan have transformed their de facto nuclear test moratorium into a legally binding commitment not to conduct nuclear test explosions.

It is also past time for India’s current leaders to pursue the recommendations of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s eloquent and visionary 1988 action plan for disarmament, which calls for “a moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons … to set the stage for negotiations on a comprehensive test-ban treaty.”

India’s security and that of Asia would be enhanced if New Delhi were to seek adoption of the CTBT along with its nuclear-armed Asian neighbors. Pakistan, which can ill-afford the expensive and senseless continuation of its fissile and missile race with India, should welcome a legally binding test ban with India.

The Middle East

With no shortage of conflict and hostility in the Middle East, ratification by Israel, Egypt and Iran would reduce nuclear-weapons-related security concerns in the region. It would also help create the conditions necessary for the realization of a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

Likewise, if Israel were to ratify the CTBT, it would bring that nation closer to the nuclear nonproliferation mainstream and help encourage other states in the region to follow suit.

Iranian ratification would help reduce concerns that its nuclear program could be used to develop and deploy deliverable nuclear warheads. Continued failure by Iran to ratify the CTBT raises further questions about the nature of its sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities.

North Korea

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests and rumors of further detonations undermine Asian security. The DPRK’s leaders should pledge to refrain from further nuclear testing pending the resumption of the Six-Party talks and agree to join the CTBT as one of the key steps in the action-for-action process for denuclearization and normalization.  

Addressing the Damage Caused by Nuclear Testing

The damage caused by the 2,052 nuclear test explosions conducted worldwide lingers on at dozens of test sites from Lop Nor in China, to the atolls of the Pacific, to Nevada, to Algeria where France conducted its first test, to western Australia where the U.K. exploded nuclear weapons, to Semipalatinsk, across Russia, in Kazakhstan, and beyond.

Most of the test sites are in the lands of indigenous peoples and far from the capitals of the testing governments. The 528 atmospheric tests delivered radioactive materials that produced approximately 430,000 additional cancer fatalities by the year 2000, according to a 1990 report published by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. The U.S. National Cancer Institute estimated in a 1997 report that the 90 dirtiest U.S. tests could cause 7,500-75,000 additional cases of thyroid cancer.

While underground nuclear blasts pose a smaller radioactive hazard than atmospheric tests, there has been widespread venting from underground explosions, especially at the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan. The United States has acknowledged that 433 of its 824 underground tests released radioactive material into the atmosphere. In addition, underground nuclear blasts leave a legacy of radioactive contamination, which eventually might leak into the surrounding environment.

Our knowledge of the extent of the harm caused by five decades of nuclear test explosions underground, in the atmosphere, and underwater is still incomplete. The governments responsible for the damage have not adequately provided the assistance to survivors and resources necessary to mitigate the environmental contamination. In fact, the major testing states have been reluctant to recognize the harm inflicted by testing and the rights of those people who have been most affected.

For example, for more than thirty years, France conducted 46 atmospheric and 147 underground nuclear tests in the South Pacific at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in French Polynesia. It is estimated that nearly half of France’s underground nuclear tests released radioactive material into the atmosphere.

French atmospheric nuclear bomb test at Moruroa Atoll, 1970.

Today, there are lingering concerns over hazards to the environment and the health of local populations. Beyond the presence of plutonium and cesium on land and in the lagoon, as reported by the IAEA in 1998, ongoing monitoring of the geology of Moruroa Atoll has revealed major hazards on the north-east flank of the atoll. There were 28 underground tests in this northeast sector, with six tests releasing radioactivity into the ocean environment through cracks in the basalt base of the atoll.

A January 2011 report by the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) outlines scenarios where a landslide of the side of the atoll – amounting to 670 million cubic meters of rock – could create a 15 to 20 meter high wave and swamp the east of the atoll. The collapse would also send out waves forming a 10 to 13 meter tsunami, which could threaten the neighboring inhabited island of Tureia.

Maohi (Polynesian) workers who staffed the Moruroa and Fangataufa test sites from 1966 to 1996 have formed “Moruroa e Tatou” (Moruroa and Us), an association to campaign for compensation from the Government of France for the health effects of their work. They have joined with former French military personnel who are members of the Association des Veterans des Essais Nucleaires in France (Association of Nuclear Test Veterans), to campaign for compensation for the health effects of exposure to ionizing radiation.

Although the French government established a compensation scheme known as the Morin law in 2010, veterans groups have criticized the way the law is being implemented. (Of the first 12 cases by French military veterans put before the committee which runs the compensation scheme, only one was granted compensation). Living many thousands of miles away from France, Maohi workers often lack the necessary documentation and resources to mount their case for compensation, with many of the archives remaining closed under national security regulations.

Improving the International Response

Last year, on the first International Day against Nuclear Tests the government of Kazakhstan made an important proposal: the establishment of an international fund—to be managed by the United Nations—to support the survivors of nuclear testing.

To translate the idea into action, the UN Secretary-General to organize a conference under the auspices of the United Nations to help mobilize resources for the remediation of contamination and health monitoring and rehabilitation of downwinders near nuclear test sites around the world.

States responsible for the testing at major test sites—particularly the United States and Russia–should report to the conference and on an annual basis every year thereafter on their current and future efforts and resource allocations to address the health and environmental impacts of nuclear testing and to rehabilitate populations that have been particularly impacted.

Independent nongovernmental experts, and especially members of affected communities should be invited to participate help develop a multi-year program of action.  Many nuclear testing survivors are minorities on the own land whose views have too often been overlooked. That must no longer be the case.

NOTE: This essay is based on a presentation on behalf of nongovernmental organizations to be delivered Sept. 2 at the United Nations. I appreciate the suggestions and contributions of a number of colleagues, including: Bruno Barrillot; Akira Kawasaki; John Loretz, Nic Maclellan, Paul Walker, and others.

This entry was posted in Asia, China, CTBT, India, Middle East, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Russia, South Pacific and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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