Perfecting Detection of the Bomb

CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo introducing the panel discussion on 'Citizen Networks: The Promise of Technological Innovation' at SnT2015 in Vienna, June 2015. Photo credit: CTBTO

CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo introducing the panel discussion on ‘Citizen Networks: The Promise of Technological Innovation’ at SnT2015 in Vienna, June 2015. Photo credit: CTBTO

By Ramesh Jaura
VIENNA, Jun 30 2015 (IPS)

An international conference has highlighted advances made in detecting nuclear explosions,tracking storms or clouds of volcanic ash, locating epicentres of earthquakes, monitoring the drift of huge icebergs, observing the movements of marine mammals, and detecting plane crashes.

The five-day ‘Science and Technology 2015 Conference’ (SnT2015), which ended Jun. 26, was the fifth in a series of multi-disciplinary conferences organised by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), which has been based in the Austrian capital since 1997.

The conference was attended by more than 1100 scientists and other experts, policy makers and representatives of national agencies, independent academic research institutions and civil society organisations from around the world.“With a strong verification regime and its cutting edge technology, there is no excuse for further delaying the [Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty] CTBT’s entry into force” – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

SnT2015 drew attention to an important finding of CTBTO sensors: the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013 was the largest to hit Earth in at least a century.

Participants also heard that the Air Algérie flight between Burkina Faso and Algeria which crashed in Mali in July 2014 was detected by the CTBTO’s monitoring station in Cote d’Ivoire, 960 kilometres from the impact of the aircraft.

The importance of SnT2015 lies in the fact that CTBTO is tasked with campaigning for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which outlaws nuclear explosions by everyone, everywhere: on the Earth’s surface, in the atmosphere, underwater and underground. It also aims to develop reliable tools to make sure that no nuclear explosion goes undetected.

These include seismic, hydro-acoustic, infrasound (frequencies too low to be heard by the human ear), and radionuclide sensors. Scientists and other experts demonstrated and explained in presentations and posters how the four state-of-the-art technologies work in practice.

170 seismic stations monitor shockwaves in the Earth, the vast majority of which are caused by earthquakes. But man-made explosions such as mine explosions or the announced North Korean nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 have also been detected.

CTBTO’s 11 hydro-acoustic stations “listen” for sound waves in the oceans. Sound waves from explosions can travel extremely far underwater. Sixty infrasound stations on the Earth’s surface can detect ultra-low frequency sound waves that are emitted by large explosions.

CTBTO’s 80 radionuclide stations measure the atmosphere for radioactive particles; 40 of them also pick up noble gas, the “smoking gun” from an underground nuclear test. Only these measurements can give a clear indication as to whether an explosion detected by the other methods was actually nuclear or not. Sixteen laboratories support radionuclide stations.

When complete, CTBTO’s International Monitoring System (IMS) will consist of 337 facilities spanning the globe to monitor the planet for signs of nuclear explosions. Nearly 90 percent of the facilities are already up and running.

An important theme of the conference was performance optimisation which, according to W. Randy Bell, Director of CTBTO’s International Data Centre (IDC), “will have growing relevance as we sustain and recapitalise the IMS and IDC in the year ahead.”

In the past 20 years, the international community has invested more than one billion dollars in the global monitoring system whose data can be used by CTBTO member states – and not only for test ban verification purposes. All stations are connected through satellite links to the IDC in Vienna.

“Our stations do not necessarily have to be in the same country as the event, but in fact can detect events from far outside from where they are located. For example, the last DPRK (North Korean) nuclear test was picked up as far as Peru,” CTBTO’s Public Information Officer Thomas Mützelburg told IPS.

“Our 183 member states have access to both the raw data and the analysis results. Through their national data centres, they study both and arrive at their own conclusion as to the possible nature of events detected,” he said. Scientists from Papua New Guinea and Argentina said they found the data “extremely useful”.

Stressing the importance of data sharing, CTBTO Executive Secretary, Lassina Zerbo, said in an interview with Nature: “If you make your data available, you connect with the outside scientific community and you keep abreast of developments in science and technology. Not only does it make the CTBTO more visible, it also pushes us to think outside the box. If you see that data can serve another purpose, that helps you to step back a little bit, look at the broader picture and see how you can improve your detection.”

Photo credit: CTBTO

Photo credit: CTBTO

In opening remarks to the conference, Zerbo said: “You will have heard me say again and again that I am passionate about this organisation. Today I am not only passionate but very happy to see all of you who share this passion: a passion for science in the service of peace. It gives me hope for the future of our children that the best and brightest scientists of our time congregate to perfect the detection of the bomb instead of working to perfect the bomb itself.”

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set the tone in a message to the conference when he said: “With a strong verification regime and its cutting edge technology, there is no excuse for further delaying the CTBT’s entry into force.”

South African Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, pointed out that her country “is a committed and consistent supporter” of CTBTO. She added: “South Africa has been at the forefront of nuclear non-proliferation in Africa for over twenty years. We gave up our nuclear arsenal and signed the Pelindaba Treaty in 1996, which establishes Africa as a nuclear weapons-free zone, a zone that only came into force in July 2009.

Beside the presentations by scientists, discussion panels addressed topics of current special interest in the CTBT monitoring community. One alluded to the role of science in on-site inspections (OSIs), which are provided for under the Treaty after it enters into force.

This discussion benefited from the experience of the 2014 Integrated Field Exercise (IFE14) in Jordan. “IFE14 was the largest and most comprehensive such exercise so far conducted in the build-up of CTBTO’s OSI capabilities,” said IDC director Bell.

Participants also had an opportunity to listen to a discussion on the opportunities that new and emerging technologies can play in overcoming the challenges of nuclear security. Members of the Technology for Global Security (Tech4GS) group joined former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry in a panel discussion on ‘Citizen Networks: the Promise of Technological Innovation’.

“We are verging on another nuclear arms race,” said Perry. “I do not think that it is irreversible. This is the time to stop and reflect, debate the issue and see if there’s some third choice, some alternative, between doing nothing and having a new arms race.”

A feature of the conference was the CTBT Academic Forum focused on ‘Strengthening the CTBT through Academic Engagement’, at which Bob Frye, prestigious Emmy award-winning producer and director of documentaries and network news programme, pleaded for the need to inspire “the next generation of critical thinkers” to help usher in a world free of nuclear tests and atomic weapons of mass destruction.

The forum also provided an overview of impressive CTBT online educational resources and experiences with teaching the CTBT from the perspective of teachers and professors in Austria, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Pakistan and Russia.

With a view to bridging science and policy, the forum discussed ‘technical education for policymakers and policy education for scientists’ with the participation of eminent experts, including Rebecca Johnson, executive director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy; Nikolai Sokov of the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies; Ference Dalnoki-Veress of the Middlebury Institute for International Studies; Edward Ifft of the Center for Security Studies, Georgetown; and Matt Yedlin of the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia.

There was general agreement on the need to integrate technical issues of CTBT into training for diplomats and other policymakers, and increasing awareness of CTBT and broader nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament policy issues within the scientific community.

Yet another panel – comprising Jean du Preez, chief of CTBTO’s external relations, protocol and international cooperation, Piece Corden of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Thomas Blake of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, and Jenifer Mackby of the Federation of American Scientists – looked ahead with a view to forging new and better links with and beyond academia, effectively engaging with the civil society, the youth and the media.

“Progress comes in increments,” said one panellist, “but not by itself.”

[With inputs from Valentina Gasbarri]

Edited by Phil Harris    

The writer can be contacted at headquarters@ips.org

Opinion: “Slight Deceleration” in G20 Trade Restrictions but Continued Vigilance Needed

In this column, Roberto Azevêdo, sixth Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), writes that the continuing increase in the G20’s stock of new trade-restrictive measures since the financial crisis of 2008 remains of concern in the context of an uncertain global economic outlook; individually and collectively, he says, the G20 must show leadership and refrain from implementing new measures taken for protectionist purposes while removing existing ones.

By Roberto Azevêdo
GENEVA, Jun 29 2015 (IPS)

The latest report by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on G20 trade measures shows a slight deceleration in the application of new trade-restrictive measures by G20 economies, with the average number of such measures applied per month lower than at any time since 2013.

According to the thirteenth such WTO report, issued on Jun. 15, G20 economies had applied 119 new trade-restrictive measures since mid-October 2014, an average of 17 new measures per month over the period.

Roberto Azevêdo

Roberto Azevêdo

A slight decrease in the number of trade remedy investigations by G20 economies has also contributed to this overall figure.

But it is not yet clear that this deceleration will continue and the WTO calls on G20 leaders to show continued vigilance and reinforced determination towards eliminating existing trade restrictions.

The longer term trend remains one of concern, with the overall stock of trade-restrictive measures introduced by G20 economies since 2008 continuing to rise.

Of the 1,360 restrictions recorded by this exercise since 2008, less than one-quarter have been eliminated, leaving the total number of restrictive measures still in place at 1,031. Therefore, despite the G20 pledge to roll back any new protectionist measures, the stock of these measures has risen by over seven percent since the last report.

The broader international economic context also supports the need for continuing vigilance and action. According to the WTO’s most recent forecast (14 April 2015), growth in the volume of world merchandise trade should increase from 2.8 percent in 2014 to 3.3% percent 2015 and further to four percent in 2016, but remaining below historical averages.“The longer term trend [vis-à-vis protectionism] remains one of concern, with the overall stock of trade-restrictive measures introduced by G20 economies since 2008 continuing to rise”

The overall response to the 2008 financial crisis has been more muted than expected when compared with previous crises. The multilateral trading system has proved an effective backstop against protectionism.

During this period, G20 economies also continued to adopt measures aimed at facilitating trade, both temporary and permanent in nature.

These developments confirm that G20 economies overall have shown a degree of restraint in introducing new trade restrictions. However, it is not yet clear that the deceleration in the number of measures introduced will continue in future reporting periods. It is also relevant that the slow pace of removal of previous restrictions means that the overall stock of restrictive measures is continuing to increase.

The broader international economic context also supports the need for continuing vigilance and action.

Trends in world trade and output have remained mixed since the last monitoring report, as merchandise trade volumes and GDP growth picked up in the second half of 2014 but appear to have slowed in the first quarter of 2015.

Economic activity remained uneven across countries as the United States and China slowed in the first quarter, while growth in the Euro area and Japan picked up.

Plunging oil prices and strong exchange rate fluctuations, including an appreciation of the U.S. dollar and a depreciation of the Euro contributed uncertainty to the economic outlook.

Lower prices for oil and other primary commodities were expected to provide a boost to importing economies, but reduced export revenues weighed heavily on commodity exporters.

In light of these developments, our most recent forecast (14 April 2015) predicted a continued moderate expansion of trade in 2015 and 2016, although the pace of recovery was expected to remain below historical averages.

In the area of government procurement, work from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), identifying 65 measures implemented since the financial crisis, suggests that discriminatory government procurement policies have become increasingly popular and potentially affect 423 billion dollars of government procurement in the implementing economies.

This report shows that G20 economies implemented 48 new general economic support measures during the period under review, with the majority targeting the manufacturing and agricultural sectors through various incentive schemes, often, but not exclusively, in the context of exports.

The overall assessment of this thirteenth report on G20 trade measures is that the continuing
increase in the stock of new trade-restrictive measures recorded since 2008 remains of concern in the context of an uncertain global economic outlook.

Individually and collectively, the G20 must show leadership and deliver on the pledge to refrain from implementing new measures taken for protectionist purposes and to remove existing ones. (END/COLUMNIST SERVICE)

Edited by Phil Harris   

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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