Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

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The Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) was signed by the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union in Moscow on August 5, 1963. Ending more than eight years of negotiations, the LTBT prohibits nuclear weapons tests or other explosions in the atmosphere, outer space, or underwater. While the treaty does not ban underground nuclear explosions, it does prohibit tests if they would cause "radioactive debris to be present outside the territorial limits of the State under whose jurisdiction or control" the explosions were conducted. In addition, by signing on to the treaty the countries agreed to the goal of "the discontinuance of all test explosions of nuclear weapons for all time."

Emergent History

After the end of World War II, Great Britain and the Soviet Union joined the United States in the nuclear club and the United States and the Soviet Union tested their first hydrogen bombs in 1952 and 1953 respectively. Public concern about nuclear testing began to grow, especially after the March 1954 test of a thermonuclear device by the United States at Bikini atoll. This test was expected to have a yield equivalent to approximately eight million tons of trinitrotoluene (TNT), but in actuality was about fifteen megatons, or almost double the predictions. The fallout from the explosion greatly exceeded geographical expectations, contaminating a Japanese fishing vessel, the Lucky Dragon, as well as Bikini atoll.

This incident, as well as others, increased the awareness of the effects of fallout and the issue of continued nuclear tests garnered greater public scrutiny. Organizations such as Women Strike for Peace and Physicians for Social Responsibility were formed to increase public pressure on western governments for signing a treaty, as well as informing the public of the dangers of nuclear testing. For instance, Women Strike for Peace originated from an international protest of women against atmospheric testing. Physicians for Social Responsibility documented the presence of strontium-90—a highly radioactive waste product of atmospheric nuclear testing—in children's teeth across the country. As it became apparent that no region of the world was untouched by radioactive fallout, there was increasing apprehension about the possibility of global environmental contamination and the resulting genetic effects. It was in this atmosphere that efforts to negotiate an end to nuclear tests began in May 1955 in the Subcommittee of Five of the United Nations Disarmament Commission.

International interest in the course of the negotiations was intense and sustained. The issue was brought up in statements and proposals at international meetings and the United Nations General Assembly addressed the issue in a dozen resolutions, repeatedly pressing for an agreement to be reached. While the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union engaged in a tripartite effort—The Conference on the Discontinuance of Nuclear Weapons Tests—almost continuously from October 31, 1958 to January 29, 1962, no treaty could be drafted due to differences on a number of issues.

Basic Treaty Issues

The issue of a control and enforcement mechanism to verify compliance to a comprehensive test ban was the primary point of disagreement between the parties. Western European and U.S. powers, especially, were concerned that it would be more dangerous to accept pledges without the means to verify that they were being complied with than to not have a treaty at all. The Soviets, for their part, felt that because, "in the present state of scientific knowledge" (Premier Bulganin writing to President Eisenhower on October 17, 1956, from U.S. Department of State Bureau of Arms Control) no explosion could be produced without being detected, then there could be an immediate agreement to prohibit tests without an international control mechanism at all.

To resolve the issue of how compliance could best be verified, the Geneva Conference of Experts met in July and August 1958 and was attended by representatives from the United States, Great Britain, Canada, France, the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. The group of experts developed and agreed on the technical aspects of a verification system to monitor a ban on atmospheric, underwater, and underground tests. This control system included an elaborate network of more than 150 land control posts, ten ship-borne posts, and special aircraft flights. In addition it allowed for on-site inspections to determine whether seismic events were caused by earthquakes or by explosions. While the United States and Great Britain said they would be willing to negotiate an agreement based on the establishment of an international control system, the Soviet Union responded by linking the test ban to other arms control issues and resumed testing. The other nuclear powers refrained from testing until 1961, after France tested its first nuclear weapon in 1960, and in 1962, the four nuclear powers conducted a record 178 nuclear tests.

Disagreement on a control system was focused on four main areas:

  • The Veto. The Soviet Union wanted all operations to be subject to a veto while the United States maintained that the inspection process should be automatic in order to be effective.
  • On-Site Inspections. The Soviet Union capped on-site inspections at three per year while the United States and Great Britain insisted that the number should be determined by detection capability and necessity. Eventually the United States said it would accept a minimum of seven inspections, which was rejected by the Soviet Union.
  • Control Posts. Neither side could agree on the number and location of posts or of the automatic seismic observation stations that would supplement nationally owned control posts. The argument of the Soviet Union that these national posts and observation stations would make inspections unnecessary was rejected by the United States and Great Britain.
  • The Organization and Control Commission. The Soviet Union proposed a troika of administrators for the Control Commission, including one neutral, one Western European or North American, and one Communist member. The Western European and North American countries argued that this would make the Control Commission powerless and unable to take action. The Soviet Union eventually acquiesced to opposition concerns and abandoned this position.

Treaty Creation and Ratification

After the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, both sides were anxious to alleviate public fears about nuclear weapons and therefore restarted the three-power conference on a test ban treaty in July 1963. While the Soviet Union would not agree to a treaty that prohibited underground testing, the three powers were able to agree on a partial ban on atmospheric, outer space, and underwater testing, which were all easily verifiable without intrusive inspections. In just ten days, the three parties had developed and signed the LTBT. The U.S. Senate ratified the agreement on September 24, and President John F. Kennedy signed the LTBT into law on October 7, 1963. The LTBT formally entered into force on October 10, and it is of unlimited duration.

Although the LTBT was touted by all parties as a success, and indeed it was so as it greatly reduced dangerous atmospheric fallout and deadly radiation, including strontium-90, secondary results were mixed. Because neither France nor China signed the LTBT, they continued to test intermittently until the early 1980s. India, Pakistan, and Israel, all signatories of the treaty, were able to join the nuclear club despite the limited ban. And in the United States and the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons development and testing continued unabated, although all tests were moved underground. Additionally there was less international public pressure to develop a comprehensive test ban treaty as the most visible sign of the arms race, atmospheric testing, was eliminated. However despite these failings, the LTBT was an important and symbolic first step and served as a precedent for future arms control treaties.


SEE ALSO Baruch Plan;International Relations;Nuclear Ethics;Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty;Weapons of Mass Destruction.


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