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For release 8 August 2003
For more information, 202/994-7000


Current "Mini-Nukes" Debate Echoes Test Ban Failure 40 Years Ago;

Declassified Documents Mark Anniversary of 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty

Washington D.C., 8 August 2003 - The current Bush administration debate over possibly restarting long-halted nuclear weapons tests in order to develop "mini-nuke" "bunker-busters" may be repeating the Eisenhower and Kennedy administration experience that killed chances for a comprehensive test ban, according to declassified documents posted today on the Web by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

The movement for a nuclear weapon test ban treaty emerged in the late 1950s as a response to world-wide apprehension over the public health effects of radioactive fallout that had been produced by hundreds of U.S., Soviet and British atmospheric nuclear tests. A recent study by the National Cancer Institute and Centers for Disease Control suggests that the tests produced an additional 11,000 cancer deaths in the United States alone.

Starting in 1958, the U.S., British, and Soviet governments attempted to negotiate a comprehensive test ban treaty, but protracted arguments over procedures to verify the ban combined with military and ideological pressures for renewed testing (similar to those in Washington today) stymied the effort. Forty years ago this week, London, Moscow, and Washington settled for a limited treaty that permitted underground nuclear testing but banned tests in the atmosphere, underwater, and in outer-space. The National Security Archive today commemorates the Limited Test Ban Treaty anniversary with an electronic briefing book of 65 declassified U.S. government documents on the negotiation of the treaty and its background. The documents show:

  • the massive levels of deadly fallout produced by high-yield nuclear tests;
  • the conviction of top Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations officials that the U.S. lead in nuclear weapons technology made a nuclear test ban advantageous;
  • the central part that world public opinion played in shaping White House support for a test ban in both administrations;
  • the important impact that concern over nuclear proliferation had on support for a test ban treaty;
  • the major role of the international inspection issue in the treaty negotiations;
  • the effort by Edward Teller and Air Force scientists to cast doubt on verification procedures, press for nuclear weapons tests, and to consider development of massive high yield weapons (even a 1,000 megaton weapon) as well as low-yield weapons.

The National Cancer Institute-Centers for Disease Control study correlating atmospheric testing and U.S. cancer deaths suggests that the LTBT can be seen as a major global public health success in so far as it halted atmospheric nuclear testing by the superpowers. President George H.W. Bush ordered a moratorium on all U.S. nuclear tests starting in 1992; and the U.S. together with Russia, China, France, and Britain signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996. But neither China nor the U.S. has ratified the CTBT to date. Whether pressures for "mini-nukes" will overturn the U.S. nuclear test moratorium remains to be seen.

Go to the Electronic Briefing Book

"The Making of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, 1958-1963"

William Burr and Hector L. Montford, editors

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