Beneath the oceans, on distant islands, in barren deserts, on icy hillsides, and at hundreds of other spots around the globe, special sensors are sniffing the air, measuring ground motion, watching for a particular kind of light, and listening for unique sounds. Their function is to pick up the telltale sign of a nuclear explosion, and according to a scientific report released in Washington on March 30, they can now do it very well.
The sensors, deployed at more than 260 sites under the supervision of an international organization based in Vienna, are singly or collectively able to discern the distinctive traits of such blasts anywhere in the world, down to a level of explosive force “well below” the equivalent of 1000 tons of TNT, or a fraction of the force of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, a panel of the National Research Council told the White House in its report.
U.S.-owned intelligence gear deployed around the globe and on satellites can do even better, the report said, without disclosing how much. Its overall message was that if the United States decides to join a global treaty banning nuclear tests — a goal professed by many U.S. officials since the treaty was completed in 1996 — it would not have to worry about militarily-significant, undetected cheating by others.
That conclusion is welcome news to the Obama administration, which has endorsed the treaty but opted not to press for its ratification this year because of Republican roadblocks. Acting Under Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller has repeatedly described this year as a good moment for skeptical, conservative lawmakers to learn more about the treaty, and the new, 204-page report by one of the country’s most respected scientific panels is meant to be their basic textbook.