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Bruce D. Larkin

Professor of Politics

University of California at Santa Cruz

Note. An addendum titled "China and the Test Ban" brings the discussion of China's position up to 21 June 1996.
1CTB Negotiations
2The Nuclear Testing Moratorium
3Purposes of Tests
4The French Test Series
5The Chinese Test Series
6Abolition Momentum and Test Protests
*Related Sites and Sources
·Reading Footnotes


The current series of Comprehensive Test Ban negotiations was agreed in August 1993 and began in January 1994 in Geneva. Talks take place in the framework of the Conference on Disarmament. The participants are fewer than a quarter of UN members, but include the five declared nuclear weapon states [US, Russia, China, France, and Britain].

At the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference in April-May 1995 the five committed to work toward a CTB Treaty for completion in 1996.

At issue is whether a CTB would be truly comprehensive, in binding all states and incorporating no erosive exemptions or loopholes. Whether all sign and ratify will only be known after a text is complete. In the interim, negotiations center on achieving the strongest text which no declared nuclear weapon state will refuse to sign.

Without access to exchanges between governments, and internal government debates about their negotiating positions, it not possible to know what points each nuclear weapon state is insistent upon and which other positions have been abandoned. In a public statement, however, President Clinton declared on 11 August 1995 that the United States would seek a "true zero-yield comprehensive test ban." In doing so, Clinton rejected internal pressure to permit 'hydronuclear tests' and explicitly abandoned a prior US effort to win approval of occasional tests ostensibly to confirm the inventory. After France conducted its sixth and last test, Chirac told a joint session of the US Congress that France was finished with testing "once and for all." 1

Test Moratorium

In April 1992 President François Mitterand of France joined a Russian moratorium on nuclear testing. In mid-1993 President Clinton announced that the United States would not test as long as others also refrained from testing. [Since Britain tests only at the US Nevada Test Site, this step--which Britain resisted--also forced the moratorium on Britain.] The Chinese test of 10 October 1993 showed that Russia, France, and the United States would maintain their moratoria despite limited Chinese testing.

When Jacques Chirac was elected President of France in May 1995, the center-right coalition--now holding both the Presidency and Cabinet--moved to abandon socialist Mitterand's nuclear moratorium. In June 1995 Chirac announced France's intention to conduct up to eight nuclear tests in the South Pacific between September 1995 and May 1996, before moving to sign a CTB in 1996. France's abandonment of the moratorium provoked outrage, centered in New Zealand, Australia, and Japan, encouraged by Greenpeace, and reflected in polls showing 60% or more of French citizens opposed to test resumption.

China continued to test in 1994 and 1995, and is expected to test in 1996 until a CTB is concluded. [Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Chen Jiang said on 30 January 1996, answering questions after the final French test, that China's position was unchanged. A CTB would have binding force (only) after it was in effect.] Beijing's test in May 1995 took place just days after Beijing, with the other nuclear weapon states, agreed at the NPT Review and Extension Conference to sign a CTB in 1996.

Critics of French testing have evenhandedly criticized China as well, though they see France as more vulnerable to public criticism. In any case, China has been forthright in asserting its intention to test, noting the (relatively) small number of its tests; and France's Ambassador to the CD publicly declared in 1994 that there was no contradiction between negotiating a CTB and resuming tests (were France, as was then a subject of political debate, to do so).

Purposes of Tests

States have conducted several different types of tests of nuclear weapons and nuclear devices. Each has specific purposes. A test principally for one purpose may also be instrumented to serve secondary purposes.

In addition, states play laser energy on material to explore responses at levels far below those of nuclear criticality. These are 'laboratory table' experiments.

In an underground nuclear test, the device is placed into a shaft, followed by instrument packages. The packages are connected by cable to recorders. Instrumentation subject to the actual blast transmits data in the moments before it is destroyed.

In a fission ('atomic') test, the device consists of one stage, which releases energy when a critical mass of fissile material is brought sufficiently close together that a rapidly-growing chain reaction takes place. In a fusion ('thermonuclear' or 'H-Bomb') test, the device consits of two stages. The first is a fission stage, to achieve high temperatures. In that momentary environment, hydrogen isotopes deuterium (H2) and tritium (H3) fuse, releasing energy.

More than one device may be detonated at the same time, especially if the detonation is small. US Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary revealed that the United States included as many as ten devices in a single experiment.

The French 1995-96 Nuclear Tests

Of the French test series of "seven or eight" tests, 3 two tests would be devoted to "security, safety, and reliability," four to the PALEN simulation program, and one (but, by arithmetic, perhaps two if required) to prove a "new warhead."

France conducted in 1995 five of the 'up to eight' nuclear tests announced by President Chirac in June 1995. The first was France's 205th acknowledged test. On 6 December 1995 Defence Minister Charles Millon announced that the last French test would take place in February. In fact a sixth test was detonated on 27 January [10:30 p.m. Paris time] and on 30 January Jacques Chirac announced it would be the last.

Reduced to six tests, France appears to have committed one to certifying the TN-75 warhead, a second either as a further TN-75 test or to prove 'safety and reliability' of a design now deployed, and four to gathering data for the PALEN simulation effort. Of course, tests can be used for multiple purposes, and pressed to redouble effort on PALEN after the moratorium of April 1992, French test officials had a strong incentive to instrument all six tests to extract as much information as constraints permitted.

The Chinese 1993-1996 Tests

China conducted five tests at the Lop Nor test site during 1993-95, and one or more additional are expected in 1996. 17

China has grown increasingly explicit that Beijing considers itself free to test until a CTB enters into force. This was stated unambiguously by China's Ambassador to the CD, Sha Zukang, speaking to the Conference on Disarmament on 8 February 1996. In the words of the official Chinese news agency Xinhua

This means two things for China's test program: China could test after signing--the implication is that it would--and as long as 'entry into force' were delayed. Whether that is a short time--measured in months--or a long time--measured in years at best--will depend on the CTB provision adopted to define 'entry into force.' Typical treaty language links 'entry into force' to some stipulated number, or set, of ratifications. But China's declared wish--a CTB "acceptable to all parties"--is likely to be very hard to achieve. The stronger the requirement for universal or near-universal ratification, the less likely it is that a CTB will enter into force at all. And even if the requirement is not that severe, key ratifications may be delayed or indefinitely postponed as the ratification process bogs down in key states.

Shortly after Sha Zukang's statement in Geneva, China's second-ranking UN delegate, speaking to a non-proliferation seminar in New York, confirmed positions China has previously enunciated. Wang Xuexian said that

In a nutshell, these terms call for [1] 'no-first-use' and 'no-threat-to-use' undertakings, [2] a 'peaceful nuclear explosions' (PNE) exemption, and [3] a 'stringent' and 'effective' system to detect illicit tests. Chinese specialists have spoken to me about the need to identify illicit tests 'in real time,' suggesting that seismic monitoring should be sufficient to discriminate tests from other events without on-site inspection, a requirement difficult to meet at very low yields, and onerous and unnecessary. Other nuclear weapon states, contending that their nuclear capabilities serve security purposes beyond nuclear deterrence, have resisted 'no-first-use' and 'no-threat-to-use' commitments. And while it might be possible to imagine PNE 'controls' (such as transparent design and rigorous preclusion of design-relevant instrumentation), PNEs are in disfavor on environmental grounds and would be widely viewed as a massive and unacceptable CTB loophole.

On its face, the most likely reading of China's increasingly explicit position is that those who want to test have won a long interim during which testing will go forward, but in turn have accepted an end to testing if a CTB commits those states about which China would otherwise be concerned (including India and Japan). On this reading, China's known security concerns dominate, and are served by a CTB. The demand for PNEs could be given up, a practical monitoring system accepted, and some less rigorous commitment (or undertakings outside the CTB itself) substituted for 'no-first-use' and 'no-threat-to-use.'

A more pessimistic reading sees China adopting a plausible position, but one geared to a CTB which would never enter into force. Demanding 'peaceful nuclear explosions' and insisting that the United States, Russia, France, and Britain forego even residual reliance on nuclear weapons to guarantee security against non-nuclear threats would, in this reading, be 'killer' requirements. And on this reading, China simply assumes that its security will rest in nuclear weapons into the indefinite future . . . and that it will need to maintain the possibility of further design and testing as weapons systems evolve.

Abolition Momentum and Test Protests

Momentum for abolition must be traced to Mikhail Gorbachev's 15 January 1986 call for an end to nuclear weapons by the year 2000. A second roadmark was Japan's shift, in the Fall 1994, to language which was more explicitly anti-nuclear than that of positions Japan had hitherto taken. The third key departure was Australia's proposal in Fall 1995 that states seriously discuss security without nuclear weapons. The Japanese and Australian positions mark a departure because both are close allies of the United States.

The effect of these steps was to place abolition on the global agenda..

The April-May 1995 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference forced consideration of the original NPT bargain between nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapon states: the non-nuclear states agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons in return for the nuclear powers' committing to disarmament, including nuclear disarmament. Of course, over the years the nuclear powers and 'realist' analysts argued that the NPT disarmament language was an expression of long-term hopes and wishes, but not a guide to policy in the world as it had to be understood. Against this acceptance of the status quo critics of accommodating nuclear weapons said that the NPT language should be taken seriously, as a mandate and obligation which the nuclear powers were iron-bound to observe. The language they cite is in the Preamble and Article VI of the NPT:

Of course, a close reading of these texts shows them to be salted with terms which leave bolt-holes for the unwilling. Article VI mandates the Parties only "to pursue negotiations," which they could do forever. And the negotiations they are to undertake are only "relating to" nuclear disarmament, not negotiations to effect nuclear disarmament. Who is to say I am not negotiating "in good faith"?

But any claim that these phrases immunize the nuclear powers from serious, practical discussion of abolition and how to achieve it is utterly untenable. The United States achieved 'indefinite extension' of the Non-Proliferation Treaty at the NPT Review and Extension Conference, but only by accepting significant concessions to those who insist on Article VI action. These concessions included ongoing interim review between NPT Review Conferences and the nuclear powers' issuing a declaration of intent to sign a CTB in 1996. The meaning of Australia's considered initiative six month later was that the terms of discussion had shifted: from not taking abolition seriously, treating it as a cosmetic concomitant of the non-proliferation regime, to taking abolition seriously, as a project which could be prepared with as much seriousness as the abolition of biological and chemical weapons. 20

It is against this background that protests against resumed French nuclear testing must be understood. The Conference statement of Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which formed part of the fabric of agreements understood to include the five nuclear powers, stipulated that

The key phrase here is that "the nuclear weapon States should exercise utmost restraint." Three days after the Conference ended China tested [15 May 1995]; and a month later [13 June 1995] Chirac announced France's test resumption. It is customary diplomacy to bridge irreconcilable positions with pretty words; France and China can profess that they test with 'utmost restraint'; but for at least some who watched the difficult diplomacy to win indefinite extension, and so preserve the non-proliferation regime, French test resumption was betrayal of a delicately negotiated exchange of quids and quos.

The degree of protest was unprecedented. Governments--among them Japan, Australia, and New Zealand--protested. Ten of France's fourteen partners in the European Union disapproved the French action. The 16-nation South Pacific Forum condemned the tests. On poll results, some 60% of the French public, hitherto somnolent over five decades of the French nuclear program, opposed resumption . Although Britain (sensitive to its own wish to resume testing) did not criticize France, the United States regretted resumption. Greenpeace mobilized citizen criticism of France and conducted attention-getting demonstrations, including entry into the test site and its surrounding waters.

On 24 October 1995 Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating declared in Canberra that he would be calling on the leaders of other states to join Australia in winning support for a world free of nuclear weapons:

Expanding on this theme the next day, he said that

In a radio interview also on 25 October, Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans said that a nuclear-free world was

Keating continued to press this initiative in November. In Japan on 19 November he asked Japan to join his plan to create an experts-level panel to study global non-nuclear security. New Zealand Prime Minister Jim Bolger, also in Japan, explained to a news conference that "Keating wrote to a number of leaders including myself some few days back suggesting that we have to look to the next stage in terms of a nonnuclear world." He fully supported Keating's initiative. 22 Japan agreed to study it.

France tested on 21 November, and again on 27 December. The Canberra Commission--Australia's autumn initiative--met for the first time on 23 January 1996. Four days later France detonated its sixth nuclear test. On 30 January, as noted above, it declared its test series complete.


The next full NPT Review Conference will take place in 2000. Jockeying around nuclear limitation will be focused, until then, on the Comprehensive Test Ban negotiations in 1996 and smaller-scale NPT progress reviews to take place in 1998 and 1999.

Uncertainties surrounding this process are daunting. Although France and the United States have conducted the political consultations necessary to arrive at a CTB "zero option," and Britain and Russia display no strong wish to conduct purposive independent test programs, China's position remains unclear.

After sustaining the political costs of the 1995-96 test series, France may no longer have the luxury--if it were ever a serious position--to insist on a universal CTB. On the other hand, signing is just one step. French ratification could remain subject to the universality criterion.

China has always expressed readiness for nuclear disarmament but with provisos that others act in step. China has not said she will accept whatever CTB the other four declared nuclear states find suitable, while continuing to express the expectation that she will sign the CTB in 1996. China's acceptance may come to hinge on conditions agreed outside the express text itself. And again, in saying that she will sign in 1996, China is not offering an unqualified commitment to ratify.

Neither is there evidence today that Israel, Pakistan, or India would join a ban. In each case there exist constituencies favoring a sustained nuclear program, and those who believe security conditions must be met before the nuclear program can be iced. Likely they will not sign, or will sign only with reservations, and their being courted and encouraged to draw fully into a CTB will become part of ongoing political negotiations.

This process is always subject--decisively subject--to internal politics in each state with a large stake. Chirac can speak authoritatively for France until 2002. Major faces defeat, but that may strengthen British interest in a CTB. Otherwise uncertainties run high. Clinton must stand for reelection in November 1996; and he faces partisan opposition from anarcho-isolationists. Yeltsin's future is bounded by political opponents, some of whom hanker after past glories. In China, the People's Liberation Army has achieved greater political access in 1995, with the possibility that this may be expressed in terms which other constituencies in the CCP will have incentives to meet. The political futures of Israel, Pakistan, and India are no more transparent.

None of this uncertainty can blot out the fact that a CTB is in the interest of the eight declared and undeclared nuclear weapon states, as a step in itself and as a move to give greater momentum to meeting NPT provisions. The more detailed information which further testing would provide, though it certainly would further theoretical understanding, would not translate into enhanced security.

Security rests in sustaining and better-assuring non-use, for which weapons in inventory are fully sufficient. This proposition may be clear to some, but it is not clear to all, in part as a consequence of US and Soviet practices, which appeared to endorse categorically the proposition that in more and better nuclear weapons lay security. This discussion is also clouded by claims that nuclear weapons prevent non-nuclear wars, and are prudent hedges against now-invisible threats which may be forthcoming at a future time. Much of the future of the CTB and NPT regimes, and whether the declared NPT aim of denuclearization is actively pursued, will depend on how utility claims are explored and assessed.

Related Sources and Sites

  • The most valuable source of ongoing reportage concerning the Comprehensive Test Ban negotiations (and other arms control and disarmament issues) is prepared by the ACRONYM Consortium and issued by Dfax as Nuclear Proliferation News [1994-95] and, then, Disarmament Diplomacy [1996 - ..].

  • Issues of Disarmament Diplomacy contain ongoing reports of the Conference on Disarmament written by Rebecca Johnson, director of the Disarmament Intelligence Review (London). See also Ms. Johnson's "Endgame Issues in Geneva: Can the CD Deliver the CTBT in 1996?" in Arms Control Today, April 1996, pp. 12-18. Arms Control Today is published by the Arms Control Association (Washington).

  • An ACRONYM Consortium member, the British-American Security Information Council, publishes Basic Reports and maintains a web site with material on nuclear non-proliferation and a proposed Nuclear Weapons Convention.

  • A searchable list of tests and data from the Australian Seismological Centre, Canberra, is maintained by the Australian Geographic Survey Office..

  • Greenpeace also maintains a web site, with information on its nuclear-related activities.

  • The Institut für Geophysik at Bochum maintains a page with a map of the French test site, test locations, and a graphic showing depths around the atolls.


    1 On 1 February 1996. Associated Press.

    2 Donald R. Cotter, "Peacetime Operations," in Ashton B. Carter, John D. Steinbruner, and Charles A. Zraket [eds], Managing Nuclear Operations [Washington: Brookings, 1987], pp. 17-74, p. 54.

    3 I have reviewed the purposes of the French tests in Nuclear Designs: Britain, France, and China in the Global Governance of Nuclear Arms (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers [Rutgers University], 1996), as follows:

    President Jacques Chirac announced on 13 June 1995 that France would resume testing, from September 1995 to May 1996, after which tests would cease.

      I consulted all the experts, civilian and military, the responsible officials, to give me their feelings. They were unanimous in telling me that if we want to assure the security of our deterrent force, if we want to move on to the laboratory stage, that is the possibility to do in the laboratory experiments with computers, then we are obligated to finish this series of tests. [Associated Press, 13 June 1995].

    France would test, he later explained, its "new warhead"--which Le Monde identifies as the TN75 for the M45 missile, for Triomphant-class SNLEs. Two tests would be dedicated to the "security, safety, and reliability" of explosive triggers and effects of aging. There would be four more--"in all, seven or eight tests"--which would "permit us to attain simulation technology." [Le Monde, 14 July 1995. (Compare, however, the CEA's claim to have "proven" the TN75 several years earlier (footnote 102).) Chirac said nothing about a warhead for the proposed M5 follow-on to the M45. Foreign Minister Hervé de Charette expressly denied France was testing to develop a new generation of weapons, or miniaturized weapons for use in situations which were unrelated to nuclear "dissuasion." The Independent [London], 13 July 1995.] So there seems to be room for two TN75 tests, if the first is not convincing.

    4 Reported statement of the French Ministry of Defence.

    5 Jacques Isnard, Le Monde, 28 October 1995.

    6 Australian Seismological Centre, Canberra. Data from web pages of the Australian Geographic Survey Office web pages at

    7 Institute of Seismology, University of Helsinki. Data from web pages at

    8 Instituts für Geophysik der Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Data from web pages at

    9 Sandy MacIntyre, Associated Press, 2 October 1995, citing Lt. Col. Annie Grimal, French military spokeswoman in Papeete.

    11 Jacques Isnard, Le Monde, 23 November 1995.

    10 Jacques Isnard, Le Monde, 28 October 1995.

    12 Jacques Isnard, Le Monde, 28 October 1995.

    13 William J. Kole, Associated Press, 21 November 1995.

    14 Jacques Isnard, Le Monde, 23 November 1995.

    15 Christopher Burns, Associated Press, 27 December 1995.

    16 The Ministry of Defence statement: ``The energy released by the blast was less than 120 kilotons. This test was carried out in order to guarantee the safety and reliability of weapons in the future."' Associated Press, 27 January 1996.

    17 Time, body wave magintude, and location taken from the Australian Geographic Survey Office searchable database at

    18 China Daily Report, FBIS-CHI-96-028, Beijing XINHUA Domestic Service in Chinese, 8 February 1996.

    19 China Daily Report, FBIS-CHI-96-032, Beijing ZHONGGUO XINWEN SHE [in English], 14 February 1996.

    20 Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons Convention (Signed 1972, Entered Into Force 1975) and Chemical Weapons Convention (Signed 1993).

    21 Nuclear Proliferation News, n 36, 13 November 1995.

    22 Kyodo, 19 November 1995.


    I suggest opening a second browser window to this text, perhaps at the bottom of your screen, if you wish to follow the footnotes with the greatest convenience.

    The Author

    The author, Bruce D. Larkin, maintains a home page with information about other work he has written on the subject of nuclear weapon control.

    Nuclear Designs: Great Britain, France, and China in the Global Governance of Nuclear Arms
    [Transaction Publishers, 1996]

    British SSBNs

    French SNLEs
    Other Sites
    "Comprehensive Test Ban" [28 February 1996] and a 21 June 1996 addendum on China's CTB policy. The Acheson-Lilienthal Report [16 March 1946]: Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy. Re CTB

    Revised 96.02.28.

    Acknowledgments and Revision History

    96.12.26 Files renamed to LWRe.CTB.96.02.28.html and LWRe.CTB.96.06.21.html. 96.06.21 Link to Larkin updated comment [LWText.CTB.+.96.06.21.html]. 96.06.21 Additions made to section on resources. 96.02.28 Text completed and issued.


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