‘This Is Madness’

Republicans Move to Strip Away Nuclear Test Ban Funding

Experts say a bill filed by Sen. Tom Cotton would trigger similar actions by other nuclear-weapon states—and undermine U.S. national security.

02.13.17 1:03 AM ET

Two close congressional allies of President Donald Trump have proposed to defund the international organization that monitors and helps to prevent nuclear-weapons tests.

S. 332, the bill filed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), would “restrict funding for the preparatory commission for the comprehensive nuclear-test-ban treaty.” Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, also a Republican, has proposed a companion resolution.

The effect of the bill, were it to become law, would be to strip away potentially all of the roughly $30 million the United States provides annually to the Vienna-based Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, which employs 260 people from 70 countries. The U.S. contribution accounts for around a quarter of the commission’s yearly budget.

The commission runs a global network of 337 nuclear monitoring stations to help enforce the treaty’s ban on atomic explosions. The ban “makes it very difficult for countries to develop nuclear bombs for the first time, or for countries that already have them, to make more powerful bombs,” the commission explains on its website. “It also prevents the huge damage caused by radioactivity from nuclear explosions to humans, animals and plants.”

“Any move by the United States toward reducing commitment to the CTBT or resuming nuclear testing would without doubt trigger similar actions in other nuclear weapon states,” Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists in New York City, told The Daily Beast. “Such a development would undermine U.S. national security and international efforts to restrain nuclear weapons development.”

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was one of the crowning achievements of international nuclear disarmament efforts during the Cold War. Negotiators hammered out the treaty between 1994 and 1996. One hundred eighty-three countries subsequently signed the treaty and 164 ratified it, including nuclear powers France, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

In 1999, the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty, joining several other nuclear powers including Israel, India, Pakistan, China, and North Korea that haven’t yet formally signed on to the test ban. India, Pakistan, and North Korea have all violated the nuke-test ban. The United States has, since 1992, abided by its own policy barring nuclear tests.

Owing to the hold-out countries, officially the test ban remains in legal limbo. In practice, however, the commission functions as though the ban were in full effect. “Even before entering into force, the CTBT is saving lives,” then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in 2011.

“A ratified Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is in the United States’ best interest, and so is the norm against testing nuclear weapons that the CTBT exerts right now, even in the absence of full ratification and entry into force,” Laura Grego, a nuclear expert with the Massachusetts, told The Daily Beast.

“Here’s an example—China’s warheads are heavy enough that they cannot put very many of them on their missiles,” Grego added. “China would need additional nuclear testing to develop a lighter warhead. If it were free to test and thus develop a lighter warhead, China would have the potential to field more, perhaps significantly more, warheads without expanding its current missile force.”

In September 2016, the UN Security Council passed a resolution urging hold-out countries to ratify the test-ban treaty. The United States voted in favor of the resolution.

Wilson has portrayed his defunding measure as a common-sense reform. “Congress never ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, so it is only logical that we should no longer fund the preparatory commission for its implementation,” Wilson said in a statement.

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The congressman’s lack of concern over nuclear proliferation is consistent with Trump’s own atomic nonchalance. Trump has urged Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons and threatened to scrap the international deal with Iran that limited that country’s atomic bomb program. In a phone call with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Feb. 9, Trump derided New START, the 2011 treaty that limits the United States and Russia to 1,500 deployed nuclear warheads apiece.

Wilson insisted his bill wouldn’t make Americans less safe. “This bill will leave in place only the funding for the international monitoring system aspect of the preparatory commission—which improves our global nuclear detection capability,” he said. “Nuclear deterrence is a critical part of protecting American families, and this legislation protects that capability.”

But that’s not true. All the commission does is monitor the planet for atomic tests. If you defund the commission, you defund the monitoring, too—they’re one and the same. “The international monitoring system that’s part of the [test-ban organization] feeds back into an international data center,” Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told The Daily Beast. “So they’re not going to fund the people who read the computer screens when the data comes in?”

Lewis said Cotton and Wilson’s bill is, in part, a thinly veiled attack on the pro-ban United Nations, another institution Trump has attacked. “Can you imagine hating the U.N. so much that you’re willing to kick yourself in your own nuts?” Lewis said. “This is madness.”