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Sri Lanka's Contribution to Defusing Nuclear Powder Keg

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By Jantha Dhanapala

If our cricket-crazy South Asian subcontinent knows the Sri Lankan hill-country town of Pallekelle — in the suburbs of my hometown of Kandy — for anything, it is for the Pallekelle International Cricket Stadium where some of the 2011 World Cup Cricket matches were played.

However, Pallekelle is also home to another, more inconspicuous, but no less important complex: A monitoring station to detect nuclear explosions – the auxiliary seismic station AS100. It is a part of an unprecedented global alarm system built by the Vienna-based Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

Sensors in SL and across the world

Monitoring technologies have evolved far beyond what was envisaged at the time of the system's conception in the 1990s. When complete, over 300 state-of-the-art sensors in every corner of the world would listen to the atmosphere, the oceans, and underground, for shock waves from a nuclear blast. Radionuclide stations sniff the air for radioactivity — the 'smoking gun' of any nuclear test. Thanks to the most elaborate verification system in the history of arms control, of which 294 stations are now operational, the international community can rest assured that all nuclear explosions will be detected, as indicated in the March 2012 National Academy of Sciences report on 'The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT): Technical Issues for the United States.' The system has already proved its effectiveness by detecting the North Korean tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013, swiftly and confidently.

Although the CTBTO celebrates its 16th birthday this year and has come a long way in establishing its formidable verification system, the CTBT has yet to become global law. This is one of the main reasons why, in my presence on 10 January 2012 in Washington DC, the 'Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' decided to adjust the hands of its famous 'Doomsday Clock' – a symbolic measure which counts down to nuclear Armageddon – one minute closer to midnight: It is now set at 11:55, five minutes before global disaster.

Veteran Nepalese diplomat, Hira B. Thapa, recently wrote about the looming danger of nuclear warfare in South Asia for his country. I share the same fears for Sri Lanka. The detonation, accidental or planned, of even a single nuclear weapon in this part of the world, would be catastrophic for the region. A nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would cause a global nuclear winter leading to years of widespread famine, as Professors Alan Robock from Rutgers University, and Owen Brian Toon from the University of Colorado, United States, predicted. Nuclear war in South Asia can be triggered by States or non-State actors, by accident or design -– as long as nuclear weapons exist in the region.

Don't let the best be enemy of the good

Some countries in our region have so far hesitated to embrace the CTBT on the grounds that it does not provide for complete and universal disarmament. The CTBT, however, was never meant to be a cure-all. It addresses one, albeit crucial aspect: Hampering qualitative improvements of nuclear weapons. While a crude Hiroshima-bomb type weapon may be developed without testing, a thermonuclear weapon with apocalyptic destructive power, cannot. Here the CTBT makes the difference. In my view, opposing this treaty because it fails to deliver complete disarmament is tantamount to opposing speed limits on roads because they fail to prevent accidents completely.

Only eight specific ratifications are missing for the CTBT to enter into force: The United States, China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, and North Korea. In February 2012, Indonesia decided to leave the group and join the 156 countries that had already ratified the CTBT, while the Obama Administration has pledged to resubmit the Treaty to the US Senate for advice and consent.

Since its inception in 1996, the CTBT's zero-testing norm is the expression of a zero-tolerance stance against nuclear testing, treated nowadays as a reckless and atavistic display of nuclear weapon possession. It is my hope that other countries in the wider Asian region will follow Indonesia's shining example.

The non-nuclear weapon States in our region could make a difference by leading through example: Among the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), only Myanmar and Thailand have yet to ratify the CTBT. The ASEAN countries are also members of the South-East Asia Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone (Treaty of Bangkok), which itself prohibits nuclear tests. Full regional membership of the Treaty of Bangkok and the CTBT are important steps in establishing South-East Asia as a nuclear weapon-free bastion of stability.

Making SL a safer place, too

In the wider region, the only countries that have yet to ratify the CTBT are Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, Nepal, and my own country, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka signed the Treaty on 24 October 1996, shortly after it had been adopted, but is yet to take the final step and sign the Treaty into law. Taking this decisive step would put the nuclear weapon possessors and the remaining eight CTBT hold-outs in the spotlight. There are also other benefits of the Treaty and its system for Sri Lanka. The CTBT verification system is yet to be completed, but already now, it helps countries deal with another kind of destructive power – that of tsunami waves. By providing near-real time information on tsunamigenic earthquakes, CTBTO monitoring data is helping tsunami warning centres in high-risk regions to issue more timely and precise warnings. After the experience of the 2004 Sumatra tsunami, which left around 35,000 dead on Sri Lanka's south and east coasts, this option should be used.

The devastating tsunami that struck Japan on 11 March 2011 triggered the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The CTBTO radionuclide monitoring stations provided health authorities around the world with swift and precise information on the radioactive emissions from Fukushima. The concern about radioactive emissions from nuclear accidents is very real in Sri Lanka, with India's power plant at Koodankulam located at a mere 250 kilometres from our North-western coast.

Ratifying the CTBT is not only a matter of principle. It is not only about supporting world peace and the environment. It is about making Sri Lanka and the region a safe and more secure place. Indonesia has shown the way – now it is up to other countries to follow suit. Each additional ratification, sends a clear political signal to the remaining hold-out States. The saga for the banning of all nuclear tests began in 1954 with a great visionary leader from Asia – Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. It would be a tragic irony for Asian nations to be an obstacle now when that goal is within sight.

[Source: Ceylon Today]

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