Features and Occasionals

Back to the Future

By Chris Meecham & Deb Sawyer

To date, more than 2,052 nuclear test have been conducted worldwide with nearly half of these done at the Nevada Test Site. The U.S. has yet to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—what does it take to end nuke tests forever?

The Atomic Age was ushered in on July 16, 1945 in New Mexico when the first nuclear weapon was tested at the White Sands Proving Ground. Then on August 6 of that year, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and three days later dropped another on Nagasaki, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. 

In 1949 the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon followed by the United Kingdom in 1957. For a brief time beginning in 1958, the U.S., the U.K. and Soviet Union agreed on a temporary testing moratorium, but it was short lived, and testing resumed in 1961 at a ferocious pace with 178 nuclear explosions in 1962 alone. 

U.S. and Russian leaders missed the chance to ban all testing in 1963 but agreed to stop tests in the atmosphere and underwater. Nevertheless, their underground tests fueled a nuclear arms race and other states joined in. France, China, India, Pakistan, and most recently North Korea have also developed and tested nuclear weapons. (Israel, also possesses nuclear weapons, but has not openly conducted a nuclear test explosion.)

To date, more than 2,052 nuclear tests have been conducted worldwide with nearly half of these being conducted at the Nevada Test site. A number of these tests deposited high levels of radioactive fallout across a large portion of the United States, including Utah. In 1990, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) allowed for some people living downwind of the Nevada Test Site to receive compensation for certain cancers or other serious illnesses caused by fallout exposure. Currently, there is proposed legislation being considered that would expand RECA to include additional victims, increase compensation, add additional covered diseases and authorize additional research. Very little has been done to recognize the devastating results of nuclear testing. Only recently did the U.S. Senate pass a resolution setting aside January 27, 2012 as a “Day of Remembrance.” The date also marked the 61st anniversary of the first nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site.

It has been 20 years since the U.S. conducted a nuclear test. In September 1992, yielding to a sustained grassroots lobbying campaign, Congress adopted the Hatfield-Exon amendment which President George H. W. Bush signed. The bill put into effect a nine-month U.S. testing moratorium, placed strict conditions on any further testing and required the U.S. to enter test ban negotiations. Other nuclear states quickly followed our lead, resulting in the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on September 1996. The international treaty would ban all nuclear testing, put in place a robust system to detect and deter nuclear tests by other states like Iran, and would be a major step toward reducing the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation. President Bill Clinton signed the CTBT on September 24, 1996.

However, the Senate, voting along party lines, failed to ratify the treaty in 1999.

While 157 nations have ratified the CTBT, it has not yet entered into force. The U.S. is one of only eight key nations who have yet to ratify the treaty. Not doing so diminishes our credibility in dealing effectively with countries like Iran who are developing nuclear programs. Earlier this year, the National Academy of the Sciences released a review of the CTBT, which found that there is no need for the U.S. to resume nuclear weapons testing. Our weapons can be tested reliably in the laboratory without nuclear explosions.

So what’s the delay to permanently putting an end to testing? As we enter another election cycle, it appears that the old adage “politics end at our shores” is not holding sway. Foreign policy and arms control agreements are becoming partisan issues. President Barack Obama has gone on record in support of CTBT ratification. Speaking in Prague in 2009, President Obama stated, “After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.” George Shultz, Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger are among the many former Republican national security experts who agree. 

Mitt Romney has yet to take a stand on the CTBT, but has voiced concerns about other international arms control treaties. Senator Orrin Hatch voted against ratification of the CTBT in 1999 and does not seem to have altered his stance, although he led the way for getting compensation to downwinders in 1990. During his campaign in 2010, Mike Lee first supported and then opposed the CTBT. Scott Howell, who is challenging Hatch in this year’s Senatorial election, supports ratification of the CTBT.

In the last polls on the issue, the vast majority of Utahns supported a global ban on nuclear testing. In fact, during the 2010 legislative session, the Utah House reflected this bi-partisan support by voting unanimously for a resolution urging our U.S. senators to ratify the CTBT. 

Christine Meecham and Deb Sawyer are members of the Utah Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (UCAN). Both live in Salt Lake City and have been long-time peace activists.

Back to the Future: Finish the Job

Peace Walk to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the testing moratorium and to support ratification of the CTBT.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

11 a.m., First Unitarian Church, 569 So. 1300 East

Walk concludes at the First Calvary Church, 1090 So. State, following a number of stops along the way.

1:30 p.m.: commemorative program at First Calvary Church

This article was originally published on August 31, 2012.