On August 5, 1963, the Treaty banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Underwater, often abbreviated as the Partial Test Ban Treaty, was signed between the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain. Developed both to slow the arms race and to stop the excessive release of nuclear fallout into the planet’s atmosphere, the treaty was hailed as the first crucial step in a series of steps towards global nuclear nonproliferation.
The treaty was propelled by growing public concern over the danger posed by atmospheric radioactive fallout. Discussions between the United States and the Soviet Union concerning a ban on nuclear testing began in the mid-1950s. The necessity for such a treaty had become all the more obvious after the United States successfully tested a hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s and the USSR detonated a 50-megaton nuclear warhead in 1961.
Talks between the three nations – Great Britain was also involved, since it was using America’s landfill in Nevada – were a drag, always running into a deadlock whenever the compliance verification issue came up, as the powers could never agree to what measures and methods should be employed for it. On the one hand, the deep mutual mistrust of the nuclear superpowers suggested the most intrusive on-site inspection. On the other hand, concerns over how such a high degree of control could make way for gathering confidential information not relevant to the treaty observation were also strong. In addition, detecting underground tests – distinguishing them from earthquakes – was particularly troublesome.
While the Soviet Union allowed only three seismic stations and three on-site inspections each year, the United States insisted on seven for a more precise examination. When it came to detecting small-scale explosions, the Soviet Union maintained the position that seismic detection equipment operated from outside the boundaries, while the United States argued that it wasn’t yet developed for long distances, and could not therefore function properly. Finally, it was impossible to distinguish between military nuclear testing and its usage for peaceful purposes, which at the time was even encouraged.
Although in 1959 both the United States and the Soviet Union temporarily suspended their testing, and were about to come up with a solution, the negotiations over the next two years were slowed by an American spy plane over the Soviet Union. On May 1, 1960, an American U-2 spy plane had been shot down deep into Soviet territory. Denying the plane’s purpose and mission at first, the American government was later forced to admit it was a covert surveillance aircraft, once the Soviet side presented its remains and surviving pilot.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, however, was the best instigator for reviving the talks in October 1962. On the verge of a nuclear war, both the United States and the Soviet Union were able to avert the crisis, but the plausible threatening scenarios still drove the superpowers to resume the test ban negotiations.
The Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty did not include underground testing and required no control posts, on-site inspection, or an international supervisory agency; nor did it put a stop to the nuclear weapon production or restrict its use in time of war. Within a few months of signing by the three original parties in August 1963, the treaty was signed by more than 100 other countries.
The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was a small but significant step toward the control of nuclear weapons, making way for a series of other treaties on reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons.