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The West Wing Shows How Outdated US Nuclear Policy Really Is

Words: Anna Schumann

Like so many others working in Washington amid the stresses of our current political climate, I recently decided to retreat to the fantasy political world that is The West Wing, just in time for the HBO Max special episode premiering today. Episode 6 of season 2 — The Lame Duck Congress — was one I’d never thought much about before I started working in nuclear weapons policy three years ago. It focused on the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban-Treaty (CTBT), which bans all forms of nuclear testing. This episode actually aired about a year after the real US Senate voted against the treaty on Oct. 13, 1999. Twenty years later, the treaty is still languishing and the episode still resonates in an uncomfortable way.

In real life, the United States signed the CTBT immediately when it opened for signature on Sept. 24, 1996, but the treaty still needed the approval of the Senate. When the vote finally happened, the treaty was voted down 51-48, with four Republicans joining 44 Democrats, getting nowhere near the 67 votes necessary for treaty ratification. President Clinton, who considered passing the treaty one of his top foreign policy goals, called the failure “partisan politics of the worst kind, because it was so blatant and because of the risks it poses to the safety of the American people and the world.” He excoriated Senate Republicans for ignoring the advice of “our top military leaders, our most distinguished scientists, our closest allies.”

In the show, opponents of CTBT ratification cite concerns about North Korea and Iran advancing nuclear technology at the expense of the United States. In real life, North Korea wouldn’t test its first nuclear weapon for six more years, and Iran still does not have a nuclear weapon.

In real life, concerns from the treaty’s opponents centered around two key issues: whether the United States could maintain a reliable arsenal without explosive testing, and whether the treaty’s verification system could detect if a country was cheating on the agreement.

In real life, concerns from the treaty’s opponents centered around two key issues: whether the United States could maintain a reliable arsenal without explosive testing, and whether the treaty’s verification system could detect if a country was cheating on the agreement. It is now abundantly clear that explosive testing isn’t necessary to maintain the US arsenal. Advanced computing and simulation capabilities combined with data from past explosive tests allows the United States to certify the effectiveness of its arsenal in the absence of testing. Concerns about cheating have been allayed by the CTBT’s International Monitoring System with its hundreds of stations worldwide that can detect even very small nuclear tests.

But this is not just about politics; nuclear testing has led to severe illnesses and the early deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans mostly in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Utah, and hurt thousands more people abroad. A return to nuclear testing could reopen those risks and worse, propel us into a new nuclear arms race. While the United States continues to observe a nuclear testing moratorium in place since 1992, news broke in May that the Trump Administration had considered conducting an explosive nuclear test as a show of force against Russia and China. The administration has since said it does not intend to conduct a test “at this time.”

Only one country, North Korea, has tested a nuclear weapon in the 21st century, but that could change. Further delay in cementing the global ban on nuclear testing increases the likelihood that it will. The CTBT has not made it back to the Senate floor for a vote, though on multiple occasions the Obama Administration wanted to encourage the Senate to take action.

As a Senator, former Vice President Joe Biden urged his colleagues to vote to ratify the CTBT. As Vice President and as a Presidential candidate, he has remained equally supportive of the treaty and firmly opposed to nuclear testing. He has always understood that further explosive nuclear testing is dangerous and unnecessary.

Back on the West Wing episode, staffers frequently mentioned that 82% of voters support the CTBT. That was the number in real life, too, and it was high on the list of voter concerns. Recent polling shows that support for what the treaty would do has only increased over time; 87% of Americans want to continue the nuclear testing moratorium.

Twenty years after this episode originally aired and 75 years after the first nuclear test, it is sad that so much of this episode still holds up today, even when so many other episodes, like those about a lack of public support for marriage equality, have proven blissfully outdated. Nearly nine in 10 Americans want to permanently stop nuclear weapons testing. It’s long past time for the Senate to listen to the American people and make opposition to such a basic national security issue seem antiquated, too.

Anna Schumann is Communications Director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Before shifting to the intersection of communications and national security, Schumann worked in journalism for seven years.

Anna Schumann

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