Treaty push hinges on “listening” net

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A staffer of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization works on the operation desk at CTBTO headquarters in Vienna.
A staffer of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization works on the operation desk at CTBTO headquarters in Vienna.

On alert for signs of a newborn A-bomb

VIENNA: In high-rise offices along the Danube, scientists riveted to computer screens “listen” to sounds no one can hear, “feel” every rumble in the Earth, “sniff” global skies for exotic gases — on alert for signs of a newborn atomic bomb.

Governments over the past decade have quietly built up a $1 billion International Monitoring System to enforce the treaty banning nuclear weapons tests. At more than 200 stations around the world, from deep in the Pacific to high in the Bavarian Alps, they have deployed advanced technologies to detect secret explosions. And they have waited.

Since 1999, when a Republican-led U.S. Senate rejected it, the treaty has languished in a diplomatic limbo, and this unequalled — and growing — system of global sensors has remained in long-running rehearsal.

Barack Obama wants to change that.

“After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned,” said the U.S. President in a pivotal speech on April 5 in Prague, Czech Republic.

Major nuclear powers, including the U.S., have observed moratoriums on testing since the 1990s, but India, Pakistan and North Korea all have tested bombs since the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was negotiated.

Mr. Obama vowed to “immediately and aggressively” pursue treaty ratification by the Senate, now in Democratic hands. If other holdout countries follow suit, the “CTBT” would come into force, putting the power of international law and the U.N. Security Council behind a ban.

A new report from a divided U.S. congressional commission, however, signals that the debate will be a difficult one — between those who see a test ban as a step toward de-nuclearising the world, and those who see it as a risk for U.S. national security. And that debate will focus on how verifiable the treaty is, on just how good a global alarm system all that money has bought.

The French engineer in charge of completing it says it’s very good. “We can already see the network is providing much better performance than envisaged at the time the treaty was negotiated,” said Patrick Grenard. “It’s extremely sensitive.”

Three-quarters of the planned 320 stations are built, certified and on line, each using one of the system’s four technologies: seismic, sensing the shock waves of an underground blast; hydroacoustic, listening for underwater explosions; infrasound, picking up the low-frequency sound of an atmospheric test; and radionuclide detection, sampling the air for a test’s radioactive byproducts.

From the Arctic to Antarctica, from dozens of islands in the world’s oceans, from forests, mountaintops and cities on every continent, the stations transmit data via six satellites back to the Vienna headquarters building of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization.

Seismologists, physicists and other specialists among the agency’s 286-member staff review the stream of information — readings of earth tremors and mining explosions, of undersea volcanos and discharges from nuclear power plants. They then package the data and relay it to the treaty’s signatory nations, including the U.S., which signed the pact in 1996, only for the Senate to reject it three years later.

While not yet fully accepting the treaty, the U.S. government benefits by obtaining data from monitoring stations in China, Russia and other sensitive places, even Iran. In fact, the U.S. itself hosts more stations than any nation — 38 when the network is completed — and pays 22 per cent of the treaty agency’s operating costs.

Installations at tiny Wake Island, a U.S. territory in the remote mid-Pacific, typify America’s commitment to the infrastructure of a treaty it isn’t fully committed to.

In 2006-2007, the Vienna agency and the U.S. Air Force built an $18 million hydroacoustic facility at Wake, the costliest single station in the global system. Three hydrophones in globular nodes were moored to seamounts in each of two locations about 100 km from the coral atoll’s shores, linked to Wake by undersea cable.

Some 2,500 feet down, the listening devices take advantage of a layer of ocean that, because of temperature and salinity, “traps” and transmits sounds over vast distances.

“Blast fishing” — use of a couple of kg of dynamite to kill fish — “can be heard 2,000 km away,” said Andrew Forbes, a British hydroacoustic specialist here. — AP



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