A Step Forward for the Test Ban

By Mark Leith, M.D. and Alex Bryans, M.D. | 1992-11-01 12:00:00

This September, George Bush reluctantly signed the most important legislation that has yet been enacted toward ending the era of nuclear weapons. This bill provides for a nine-month moratorium on nuclear testing, beginning immediately. Further, it requires the President to develop a plan for achieving a multilateral comprehensive test ban (CTB) on or before September 30, 1996. After the conclusion of the moratorium, up to 15 nuclear tests may be conducted within four years for the purposes of developing new safety features, which are to be installed in all warheads. Tests which will be allowed include (a) tests that may be conducted by the United Kingdom once per year, if the President deems it to be in the interests of American national security, and one reliability test per year. The U.S. cannot conduct any nuclear tests after January 1,1997 unless a foreign state conducts an explosive nuclear weapons test after this date.

The legislation is a great victory for the worldwide peace movement and for Senator Mark Hatfield, who has been promoting a CTB for 25 years. It is consistent with the policy of Governor Bill Clinton. President Bush had threatened to veto the legislation, but it was included on an energy and water bill that provided funding for a supercollider and other job-creating programs destined for Texas, a state that Bush must win if he is to be reelected.

A Comprehensive Test Ban (CTB) would completely end nuclear weapons test explosions. The peace movement has sought a CTB for three reasons:

The PTBT was signed in response to protests regarding contamination of the atmosphere and predicted ill-effects on health. Atmospheric testing was predicted to result in 430,000 cancer deaths by the turn of the century, eventually leading to over 2 million possible deaths.

The underground explosions, which continued after the PTBT, release huge amounts of radioactivity into underground cavities. There have been ongoing concerns about venting into the atmosphere and contamination of the marine environment.

The NPT was designed to block the transfer of nuclear weapons materials and technology from the nuclear to the non-nuclear nations. The non-nuclear nations agreed not to acquire or manufacture nuclear weapons. In exchange, the nuclear nations promised to provide technological support for their peaceful use of nuclear energy. The treaty obliges the nuclear nations to end the nuclear arms race and to complete nuclear disarmament. The NPT is reviewed every five years. If it is not renewed in 1995, it will expire.


Canada has frequently co-sponsored resolutions for a CTB in the U.N. General Assembly. However, none of these resolutions is binding. Working discussions on the CTB take place in the U.N. Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD). U.S. resistance has precluded the committee from having a negotiating mandate. The CD's work, therefore, has been primarily concerned with issues of verification.

In January 1991 a conference was held at the U.N. to begin proceedings toward an amendment of the PTBT to convert it into a CTB. Since a vote on an actual amendment requires the approval of all three depositary nations (U.S., U.S.S.R., and U.K.), the conference was only able to vote on whether to continue the proceedings. Only the U.S. and the U.K. voted against this motion. Seventy-four countries voted in favor, including seven Western parties, but Canada abstained.

On October 5, 1991 President Gorbachev announced a moratorium on testing and called on the other nuclear powers to join. Subsequently President Boris Yeltsin has signed a decree preparing for resumption of testing in the Arctic if the moratorium is not joined by the U.S. On April 8, 1992, the French government, in a dramatic reversal of policy, announced their own one-year moratorium on testing.

Prime Minister Mulroney, speaking in Baltimore on May 21,1992, praised the French government's action and called on all nuclear weapons states to agree to a testing moratorium. External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall indicated on July 17 that "Canada is now urging the Peoples Republic of China, the United Kingdom, and the United States to reconsider their testing needs and to join France and Russia in a moratorium. We are also calling on France and Russia to extend their moratoria beyond the announced time limits. A global testing moratorium would be a significant step towards Canada's objective of a comprehensive test ban treaty, and would bolster the nuclear non-proliferation regime based on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty." This represents a departure from previous Mulroney policy, which had concurred with the U.S.'s resistance to a CTB.

President Bush refused to reciprocate these initiatives. However, as noted above, the U.S. Congress and Senate has enacted legislation, and Bush has signed it' so let's celebrate!

Mark Leith and Alex Bryans are members of the Canadian Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1992

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1992, page 19. Some rights reserved.

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