VIP observers on Parry Island, watching an 81 kiloton test as part of Operation Greenhouse, on Enewetak Atoll, April 8, 1951. Credit: Brookings Institution/Defense Special Weapons Agency

At the end of my discussion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty with Linton Brooks, he suggested that I interview someone who’s a “treaty skeptic”, who has doubts about the treaty and is able to explain them well. He referred me to Tom Scheber, who is Vice President of the National Institute for Public Policy. You can read Mr. Scheber’s biographical statement here, which includes a description of his academic and military background as well as what he did at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

I feel that listening to the arguments of rational CTBT skeptics is important whether or not you agree with them, because it will give you an idea of what we’ll see once the discussion gets going among Senators. As Daryl Kimball said about Senate prospects for approval of the resolution of ratification, “…in the Senate we’re at the beginning of a treaty engagement and education process that could take quite some time.”

As with the previous two interviews, my questions are in italic boldface; Mr. Scheber’s replies follow. I have inserted hyperlinks as references wherever they might be needed.

Mr. Scheber was quick to point out to me that although he was part of the technical staff at LANL from 1989 through 2000, he is not a weapons designer; his masters degree in operations research is why he joined the LANL staff, where he “worked in weapon studies and concepts doing operational effectiveness analyses…”.

Despite the fact that he’s a treaty skeptic, it’s important to remember that his opinion of the CTBT is based on some very solid experience in the nuclear weapons complex.

As much as you can without breaching any classification rules, can you tell me a little more about what you did when you worked at LANL and for the DoE, and your general experience in that environment?

… [It] was a very dynamic time, because ’90 to 2000, which was when I was in the nuclear weapons technology directorate spanned the time frame from continuing to develop a wide portfolio of weapons, test them in Nevada, nuclear-driven directed energy concepts, until the dissolution of the Soviet Union and our change in plans following that, the test moratorium and the plans for the CTBT, and then I was very actively involved in the planning for stockpile life extension programs, and the stockpile stewardship program. So, I was using my military background and my technical background, but not as a weapons physicist.

I worked in the nuclear weapons technology directorate and had a change to interface with a wide variety of technical people. My background gave me at least enough insight that I understood what they were doing, what they trying to accomplish, and some of the issues, and then I helped to roll those issue together into our program plans.

Many things have changed since 1999. There have been some recent State Department officials’ speeches about the CTBT, indicating that the Obama administration is clearly opening the doors to start discussing the treaty again, against the backdrop of a greatly expanded nuclear complex budget. Also, it has been well-established that data from JASON show the stockpile maintenance and LEP programs are working.

But you still have your doubts about the CTBT, even though many people are convinced the bombs will work and things will be fine for a long time.

So, I have three big questions that are a significant part of the picture when it comes to differences of opinions between CTBT skeptics and CTBT proponents:

  • How the treaty defines a nuclear test
  • How verifiable and enforceable the treaty is, and
  • The effect of US ratification of the treaty on our politics, agenda, and that of the rest of the world.

Let’s start by talking about Article I of the treaty, which states, in part:

Each State Party undertakes not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion, and to prohibit and prevent any such nuclear explosion at any place under its jurisdiction or control.

It’s my understanding that for treaty proponents, Article I is perfectly clear: “zero means zero”, i.e. that the treaty clearly bans all nuclear tests, period. It’s also my perception that treaty skeptics and opponents feel that Article I was not clear at all on what constituted a nuclear test, and left a lot open to interpretation. Since you have your doubts about the CTBT, perhaps you could go into some detail about your thoughts regarding Article I.

[The CTBT] was negotiated in the Conference on Disarmament, where every country — it’s a consensus group, and every country essentially has a veto vote, and so that is why the CTBT that we have looks like it does. It is the least common denominator that all of the countries could agree to, and so we do not have a definition for a nuclear test.

And when queried by the Senate, the State Department responded — it was questioned on whether there were any side agreements on the definition of a nuclear test. Our Ambassador Ledogar, who negotiated the treaty claimed there was at least a verbal understanding. The State Department said they have no record of any such side agreement or definition.

So it’s a key issue. That is the single most important issue associated with the CTBT, of what is it that is to be prevented or constrained. So, we certainly talked to several of our Russian colleagues through the years, who verified that Russia has a different way of interpreting the ‘no nuclear tests’ than we do, there’s nothing official that they’ve been willing to put in print, and so the lack of a definition becomes key.

[Additionally, the CTBT], with all its flaws, is of indefinite duration, and so this goes on without end, if it ever enters into force, and until it is either abrogated or we discontinue it.

I’d like to pursue the concept of “zero” further. Could you explain why you feel there is more nuance than simply “zero means zero”, and why you feel it is technically difficult to define “zero”?

Trying to decide and precisely define what “zero” means is very technically difficult. The United States has a working definition that as long as the weapon remains subcritical, and does not exceed criticality, in a test, that that is our definition of “zero”. And of course even with that, there is a very small energy release, but other nations, it’s not clear that they abide by the same kind of working definition. In fact I think if you look at the Strategic Posture Commission Report of two years ago, the consensus view was that Russia has apparently not abided by the same restrictive definition and their wording is, has apparently conducted nuclear tests. That’s the wording that they agree to use in the unclassified document, and the commissioners looked at the classified record to arrive at that finding.

Regardless of how one defines a nuclear test, the treaty must lay out a framework for detection and verification of nuclear tests, and subsequent enforcement of the treaty. Technology is very different from what it was when the treaty was defeated in the US Senate, eleven years ago. Based upon those technical improvements, do you the the treaty is verifiable? If so, how?

I think you’re getting at a key point, and I’m another person who likes to kind of dig down into the issues, and when you ask, is it verifiable, what does ‘verification’ mean, what would verification entail — in many of the discussions, there is a blurring of the definition that ‘something has happened’ that needs to be verified and needs to be investigated, and the term “verifiability”.

I’ve been in… briefings where the seismologists show charts, and they show different kinds of mine explosions, and nuclear explosions, and signatures [that go with them]. But at the very low level, the ability to take information that is provided by the International Monitoring System [IMS, see treaty protocol] and sort through and precisely determine what has happened and where it’s happened is — the lower the yield and the smaller the explosion, given all the Earth’s other background noise and events going on is very difficult.

And so I think where the International Monitoring System is very helpful is at detecting that an event has occurred somewhere and that needs to be verified, and I think that’s a good thing — the participation and the development of the IMF is helpful in instilling some level of confidence. At the same time, the treaty itself is so weak that I’m not very hopeful that the detection of an event would then yield to a timely and accurate inspection. First, the delay, and each country has to provide their own assessment of the convening of this executive commission to debate whether an inspection is required, the time required to assemble a team, and all that time, evidence is degrading that would help determine precisely what happened, and as well as the cooperation of a country who has to cooperate with the inspection, and they might refuse to be inspected or to let a particular area be inspected.

And as you know, the treaty allows for some small areas to be declared off-limits, and not inspected also.

Given the scenario in which treaty signatories all manage to agree that there has been a nuclear test, and then assemble an inspection team, do you think the politics behind the scenes could be as complex as it sounded, especially with some countries possibly backing the country that tested the weapon?

…[J]ust as in the UNGA or other commissions on the United Nations, that there will be bargaining and horse-trading behind the scenes… there’s very complex issues at work here which I think undermine some of the purported benefits that CTBT advocates would claim will happen if we ratify the treaty.

Going back to the subject of advanced technology and verification, could you go into a little more detail about the IMS? Are all countries deploying it equally well?

You know, I think on many of these issues, the US has gone the extra mile. I know other countries will criticize us because we haven’t ratified the CTBT, and for other actions, they’ll be critical of the US. But even on certain aspects of the CTBT, such as the placement of seismic sensors and stations around the world, we have gone the extra mile.

Russia, and China in particular, neither one of them has been willing to place an IMS station — within Russia, the nearest station is over a thousand kilometers from the test site at Novaya Zemlya. In China the nearest station is over 750 kilometers away [from their test site, Lop Nur]. However, in the US, we have three IMS stations within 500 kilometers — one is closest, 250 kilometers of our test site. Now, the seismologists have explained that there’s a rationale for that involving different kinds of soil, but it shows a lack of good faith at least by Russia and China. If you look at where all these stations are positioned, in particular it’s easiest to see on a map of China; there’s this big “hole” in the middle of China. And you ask, well, what’s in the middle of that hole? And that’s Lop Nur!

I think Russian has been more dependent on variant low yield nuclear tests and experience with them than we have. They have developed — and there’s a lot written about it — these triple containment vessels [Kolbas] to contain explosives and even very low-yield nuclear tests that would even contain any gases from escaping. They’re made to be resilient, to expand. Their literature says that they have been cemented in underground locations at their test site at Novaya Zemlya…

… [T]hey’re very innovative, and so it’s clear to me from seeing the kinds of money that the Russians have poured into revitalizing Novaya Zemlya that the experiments that are conducted up there are very valuable to them, that they really don’t want us to know much about what’s going on. If you’re going to go and conduct experiments above the Arctic Circle, [where] you can only work for parts of the year. It’s a very costly way of doing business, so this must provide something of significant value for the Russians and their nuclear weapons program.

[Scheber specifically mentioned the recent NIPP report on the CTBT, in which, the Kolbas are mentioned as a particular concern in the context of Russia conducting any “nuclear tests”, in the same context as such tests were discussed in the 2009 Strategic Posture Commission.]

My next question for you is literally a global question regarding the United States versus the rest of the world, with the CTBT as a backdrop. How do you feel about the treaty in the context of US global security and foreign policy?

Let me just quickly get to where I think the most serious issue is.

The outline is this. It is that for the US, either nuclear weapons remain important to the security of our country and its allies, or they don’t. I think some people will claim that yes, they’re important, but when you push them and really ask them what they believe about the subject, I find that they don’t really believe they’re of much importance. I think in the long term… all national security documents indicate that they’re still important, and you have to question the individuals to see if they believe that or not, but I tend to believe that they remain important for us, and they certainly are of importance to our allies.
So if they’re important for our security and allies’ security, then it is a national priority to ensure that those nuclear warheads and the weapons have high reliability. They seem to go together, and I don’t know how you can separate them.

Now, the question is, what does the test ban have to do with that?

One: the US did not prepare for a nuclear test ban environment. The moratorium on testing was thrust upon the nuclear weapons design community, there was a half-hearted effort to prepare, but we were not like other countries such as France, and I think the French probably, in retrospect, did it the right way. When there was a sustained effort to negotiate a test ban treaty — flawed as it was, the French continued testing, and they worked to design, test, validate, and collect data on computer codes for a couple of new warhead designs, which they have since built and fielded, and which they were specifically intended to be be able to be maintained, hopefully, without testing… the French went forward, they tested it, they got data on those designs; once that design and test series was complete — actually they had one more test if they needed they planned to do and they indicated that they did not need that. And then once it was complete [the series], they ratified the CTBT. I think the French took a prudent approach in their design.

The US, if you follow the historic record, it was the cutoff in appropriation funding at the end of September ’92, the end of FY92, and the reestablishment of funding was to be contingent on a presidentially submitted, three-year test program, which would focus on improved security and safety devices for nuclear warheads which could be sustained for the long term without testing. Well, that three-year test series was never conducted, President George H.W. Bush developed a plan [see Section 1.6 here], but when President William Clinton came in in January 1993, he indicated there would be no testing, and the CTBT and the US moratorium for that is history.

Here’s my final question: what do you think was the end result of that situation? Could the US be confident that it could rely upon its nuclear weapons to do the job, if it came to that? Was the stockpile prepared for a testing moratorium?

I do think the Stockpile Stewardship Program — and I was at Los Alamos when it was initially called the Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship — is doing some very good things, but at best it can provide a lesser standard than testing. I think the United States has probably the most technically sophisticated and complex warheads in the world, and it’s sort of like having a very sophisticated car in your driveway that you haven’t started for 20 years. Stockpile stewardship — if I can equate it to that — I would assert it is a lesser standard than that provided by testing, and I’ll explain that.

Stockpile stewardship is the calculations, and the experiments, that, at best, tell you there is an absence of evidence that the warheads will not work. They’ll say there’s no reason why these should not work. It’s like your car being in the driveway, and on on a cold morning, someone going out and having done a variety of checks, and saying ‘there’s no reason why this car shouldn’t start’.

Now, the question is, will it start? Testing provides evidence that warheads either do work or do not, or work partially. And so stockpile stewardship can tell you that there’s no evidence that the warheads will not work. That’s essentially what the current certification process performs. They look at the available data, assess whether there is any significant change or degradation which would interfere with the proper functioning of the warhead, and then the lab directors have a judgement to make whether they can certify that that warhead would work consistent with the specifications that have been provided.

It is a lesser standard than periodically conducting a nuclear test to provide evidence that, in fact, they do work.

And so, I am not of the community that says we should immediately conduct nuclear tests. But because [nuclear weapons] are of paramount importance to the United States and its allies, because we did not prepare for a test ban, and because the reliability is extremely important, that we should retain the option to test in the future, and therefore we should not lock ourselves in by ratifying the CTBT, which would then force us to go through the painful, legal processes of giving notification and withdrawing from the treaty if that ever is needed in the future.

I expect this interview will lead to a rather animated discussion. What do you think of Mr. Scheber’s points?