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Marjorie Cortez: Congressional bickering stalls Test Ban Treaty

Like a lot of Americans, I feel mounting frustration with Congress.

The partisan divide is so bitter that our elected representatives are deadlocked on the issues of the day. Meanwhile, Americans — and the next generations of Americans — suffer from Congress' inaction on issues such as Social Security reform, immigration reform and the deficit. Political gamesmanship is seemingly more important than taking care of the people's business.

Last week, David Culp, a lobbyist for Friends Committee on National Legislation, visited Utah to remind us about a highly important back-burner issue in Washington, D.C., the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

In a meeting with our editorial board, Culp reviewed the history of the treaty, which the U.S. Senate has yet to ratify, although the United States agreed to a nuclear testing moratorium in 1992. Our nation has not conducted a test since, but the Senate refused in 1999 to ratify the treaty.

While Culp does not believe Congress will take on the issue this year, he's attempting to ramp up support for the treaty's ratification in 2011. The support of Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett is key, Culp said.

Former Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, in an op-ed published in the Deseret News on Jan. 29, wrote that ratification of the CTBT "will make our country safer, as we work with the international community to prevent nuclear proliferation and to strengthen the security of existing weapons and weapons-usable material."

As Garn explains, nuclear explosive testing is no longer needed to maintain the effectiveness and reliability of our nation's arsenal of nuclear weapons. Lab studies suggest that plutonium components in warheads can last at least 85 years — far longer than previously believed.

The treaty also would strengthen verification processes to ensure that nations that ratify the CTBT comply with its requirements. Aside from detecting cheaters, the global network of monitoring stations would detect seismic activity and the presence of radioactive particles in the atmosphere, among other detection techniques.

While most baby boomers grew up fearing nuclear attack by the former Soviet Union, most experts believe we shouldn't lose sleep over that scenario, Culp said. A more likely scenario would be a nuclear war between nations such as India or Pakistan. But far more disturbing is the specter of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear materials to develop a suitcase nuclear weapon or nuclear warheads capable of an electromagnetic pulse attack intended to destroy America's technical infrastructure.

The latter seems the stuff of science fiction. We hear a lot about suitcase nukes and black market brokering of weapons-grade uranium on the hit Fox network program "24."

Culp isn't amused by the fictional depictions because it is possible for terrorists to get their hands on unsecured nuclear materials. Global Zero, an initiative aimed at eliminating the world's nuclear weapons by 2030, claims nuclear explosive materials have been lost or stolen on 25 instances during the past two decades. Unfortunately, there's no real-life Jack Bauer to protect us from that possibility.

A global verifiable ban would block the ability of nations that have nuclear weapons from developing more advanced weapons. But more important, it would help to keep countries such as Iran from testing smaller, more sophisticated nuclear warhead designs, Garn wrote.

Culp says most members of Congress recognize that ratifying this treaty is key to preventing nuclear proliferation and enhancing the security of existing weapons and nuclear materials. Support for ratifying the treaty is "an inch deep and a mile wide," Culp said, because partisan politics gets in the way.

Seemingly, in a world that changed drastically after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, party line politics just doesn't cut it as an excuse to do nothing.

Marjorie Cortez, who never understood the point of climbing under one's school desk in the event of a nuclear attack, is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail her at marjorie@desnews.com.