Detection of North Korea Test Shows CTBT Can Be Verified

One of the strongest concerns expressed by those who oppose American approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is that of verification. News on Tuesday that in addition to the 94 seismic sensors that detected the actual detonation on February 12 of an alleged North Korean nuclear weapon, the verification system set up by the CTBT has detected radioactive particles in the air all but put to rest the legitimacy of those concerns. If, despite significant efforts by North Korea to ensure that no tell-tale gases escaped the underground test site, the system put in place by the Treaty has registered that material, it strongly supports what the United States government has been saying about the CTBT for over 15 years -- the CTBT is effectively verifiable.

Debates over the value of arms control agreement often center on the issue of verification -- can you be sure that cheating will be detected? This is the right debate to have as no one wants to put agreements in place that cannot deter or detect significant cheating. The verification system to be put in place under the CTBT, however, has been unfairly maligned by those who oppose the treaty of philosophical grounds. Can people create fantastic hypothetical cases that might reduce the confidence that the monitoring network might detect a small event? Of course they can. But in the real world, where states have to operate, it now appears that despite their best efforts to prevent the release of noble gases from the test site, North Korea -- exactly the kind of state we would want to monitor with the CTBT, has failed. By any stretch of the imagination, the seismic readings alone have been and would be enough to trigger an on-site inspection under the CTBT, were it to be in force. Detection of unique gases released from nuclear explosions would be icing on the cake and make even the most reluctant treaty member keenly aware that a possible violation has taken place.

Other critical issues that will have to be addressed if and when the Treaty is brought up for consideration in the United States Senate include the ability of the United States to maintain its nuclear deterrent in the absence of nuclear testing. To be sure, a national consensus about how large a nuclear arsenal we need and what maintaining it should cost are desperately needed conversations. But the capabilities of the CTBT system, backed up by American intelligence means, are now demonstrably capable of detecting clandestine, underground nuclear tests making the treaty effectively verifiable. This position, confirmed through a National Academy of Sciences report issues in 2010, has now been validated in the real world and it would be nice of members of the Senate decided to visit there.