The Meaning of the International Day Against Nuclear Tests

Secretary-General Visits Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site

August 29, 2013 marked the third anniversary of the ‘International Day against Nuclear Tests’.  The initiative began when the Republic of Kazakhstan proposed a resolution which would mark the closing of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test site which had closed on August 29, 1991, forty two years after the first Soviet Nuclear test.[1] The resolution (resolution 64/35) was passed unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly on December 2, 2009.

Three years after this resolution we are facing a different world. The West is awaiting a UN report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Tensions between the West and the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea have increased, after a nuclear weapons test in February of this year. But this issue has since faded from public consciousness. At such an important time it is apt that we have this day to remind us of what we’ve accomplished and what has yet to be accomplished.

The Semipalatinsk test site was one of the main locations for Soviet nuclear weapon tests. The IAEA estimates that “During the period 1949-89 the former Soviet Union conducted total about 460 nuclear weapons tests within the test site. They included explosions that were conducted on the surface or in the atmosphere…Starting in 1961, more than 300 test explosions were conducted underground.”[2] The closure of such a significant site was an important step forwards for Nuclear Disarmament and reducing tensions between the East and West.

In 1996 countries began signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which took the step of stopping nuclear weapons tests further. Sadly, however, the CTBT still has not entered into force and is waiting on countries, particularly North Korea and the United States, to sign and ratify it. Instead the world is left in an uneasy limbo, where nuclear testing is viewed as wrong, but states outside of the CTBT are not obligated to follow it, and therefore repercussions are problematic issues. Perhaps the most salient example of this would be the reaction, or rather lack of reaction to North Korea’s nuclear tests earlier this year. Next month there will be a Conference on Facilitating Entry into Force of the CTBT (or Article XIV conference) at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.[3] Perhaps this will make some progress towards a world where nuclear weapons are not tested.

Nuclear testing served three important goals. Firstly, it demonstrated that the bomb design worked. Secondly, it demonstrated the military power of a country’s nuclear force. Thirdly, it was a useful political tool; used at the right time a test, or lack of a test, would convey a message to the other side during the tensions of the Cold War. The lack of testing has helped reduce tensions and perhaps signified that nuclear weapons are not the great weapon that they were once seen to be. As the world focuses on the Syrian crisis and the usage of chemical weapons, a reminder of the progression we’ve made with nuclear weaponry seems suitable.

This day, against nuclear testing, reminds us of how far we’ve come, but how far we have yet to go.

Elizabeth Dunkerley

[1] United Nations, International Day Against Nuclear Tests. Available from: http://www.un.org/en/events/againstnucleartestsday/ [accessed 29 August 2013]

[2] IAEA, The Semipalatinsk Test Site, Kazakhstan. Available from: http://www-ns.iaea.org/appraisals/semipalatinsk.asp [accessed 29 August 2013]

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