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Definition: Test Ban Treaty from Philip's Encyclopedia

(1963) Agreement signed in Moscow by the Soviet Union, the USA, and Britain to cease most tests of nuclear weapons. Nearly 100 other states eventually signed the treaty, although France and China continued to conduct tests in the atmosphere and underwater.

Summary Article: Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
from Encyclopedia of the U.S. Government and the Environment: History, Policy, and Politics

The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 was an agreement between the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the USSR that prohibited nuclear weapon tests, or any other nuclear explosions, in the atmosphere, under water, or in outer space. Also known as the Limited Test Ban Treaty, its goal was to end the radioactive contamination of the global environment.

Richard DeVercelly, a reactor technology instructor for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, works the controls in an emergency drill in a control room simulator at the NRC's training center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Wednesday, September 5, 2007. The red lights above him indicate the location of control rods in a reactor core.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

While the treaty did not specifically ban underground nuclear tests, it did prohibit nuclear explosions that caused radioactive debris, or “fallout,” to occur outside the territorial limits of the nation where the explosions were conducted. In November 1952, the United States had detonated its first hydrogen nuclear device, followed by the Soviet Union in August of the following year. These fission/fusion explosions were larger than earlier pure fission bomb tests. The prospects of even more powerful explosions, and more fallout, in the future accelerated international efforts to bring an end to nuclear testing.

The dangers of radioactive fallout had been brought home in several tragic cases during the 1950s. On March 1, 1954, the United States exploded Bravo, a hydrogen bomb, on Bikini atoll. Bravo was expected to have the explosive power of 8 million tons of TNT. The actual yield was almost double that, about 15 million tons. As a consequence of this explosion, so much larger than had been anticipated, the area of dangerous radioactive fallout greatly exceeded scientists' estimates. A Japanese tuna-fishing vessel, the Lucky Dragon, was in the area and was accidentally contaminated by the fallout, despite being 20 miles outside the proscribed danger zone. The Lucky Dragon's crew suffered from radiation sickness, as did some of the inhabitants of the nearby Rongelap, Rongerik, Utrik, and Bikar atolls. In a similar accident, radioactive rain fell on Japan in 1956 in the wake of a Soviet nuclear test in Siberia.

United States President John F. Kennedy signs the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on October 7, 1963. The treaty prohibited several types of nuclear tests.

(Courtesy Robert Knudsen, White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library)

Efforts to impose a nuclear test ban had begun nearly a decade before the actual signing of the Test Ban Treaty. Negotiations began in May 1955, after the Soviet Union included the discontinuance of nuclear weapons testing in one of its proposals to the UN Disarmament Commission. The United States and Britain declared their willingness to negotiate a suspension of tests, but negotiations failed to produce a workable agreement. In 1957, Britain conducted its first hydrogen bomb test, and both the United States and the Soviet Union accelerated their testing programs. A ban on nuclear testing seemed unattainable.

Relief came, however, on March 31, 1958, when the Soviets announced that they would unilaterally suspend nuclear testing. Later that year, all three nations entered into a trial one-year testing moratorium and resumed treaty negotiations. The moratorium lasted three years and ended when the Soviet Union abruptly resumed nuclear testing in August 1961. The United States began testing again less than a month later. International pressure to end testing grew in intensity. In the summer of 1963, British and U.S. negotiators met with the Soviets in Moscow, and on July 25, 1963, the Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed.

  • Arnold, Lorna, and Katherine Pyne. Britain and the H-Bomb. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
  • Cathcart, Brian. Test of Greatness: Britain's Struggle for the Atom Bomb. London: Murray, 1994.
  • Gowing, Margaret. Independence and Deterrence: Britain and Atomic Energy, 1945-52. 2 vols. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975.
  • Hanson, Todd A.
    Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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