Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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When Science Trumps Politics

The Case of Nuclear Test Verification

Ernest Partridge

From "Just Do It,"

A paper presented at an international conference on
"Environment and Human Rights in the Russian Federation." 

Principle sponsors:  The Center for Democracy (USA),
The Center for Russian Environmental Policy (Moscow).

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars,
Washington, DC, November 6, 2001.

Can the coordinated efforts of non-governmental scientists, activists and organizations significantly affect governmental policy? Clearly, the evidence of recent history is that it can. Citizen action in the United States ended the Viet-Nam War and enacted reforms in civil rights. And in Russia, citizen resistance thwarted the communist counter-revolution of 1991. 

However, I would like to relate another case in which the initiative of scientists in both Russia and the United States, with the support of non-governmental organizations and foundations, significantly and favorably affected government policy. While I was not a participant in this initiative, I was a friend and colleague of some who were, and thus an interested spectator

It had to do with seismic verification of compliance with nuclear test ban treaties in the mid-eighties. Among the many heroes of this story are three American scientists, seismologists Charles Archambeau and Jack Evernden, and physicist Thomas Cochrane of the Natural Resources Defense Council. In addition, there were four Russians, Roald Sagdeev, Evgeny Velikhov, and Boris Gokhberg, all of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and of course Mikhail Gorbachev.

Recall the US policy in 1986 a year after Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the CPSU, and at the onset of glasnost. The official position of the Reagan Administration at that time was (a) that seismic verification of compliance with a non-testing agreement was impossible "weak science" (sound familiar?), (b) even if verification were possible, the Soviets would never allow the required seismic stations to be set up on their territory. Accordingly, (c) the US was obliged to continue its underground testing.

Notwithstanding all this, in July, 1985, Gorbachev initiated a unilateral test ban which was to last for nineteen months, during which time the US would conduct 25 underground tests in Nevada.

From 1984-86, I was a research associate at the University of Colorado, studying earthquake prediction under a grant from the National Science Foundation. My office was close to that of Charles Archambeau. In a private conversation early in 1986, Archambeau told me of his recent trip to Moscow. During an informal conversation among Russian and American scientists, Archambeau and other Americans pointed out that with available scientific methods and technology, detection of nuclear tests was a virtual certainty.  The instruments were sufficiently sensitive to identify yields of one kiloton at the most, and with extensive monitoring, much smaller than that. (The difference in the seismographic profiles of earthquakes and explosions are immediately recognizable, as explained in the note below). However, this would require placement of seismometers near the test sites, and of course the Soviet government would never allow this.

"Don't be so sure of that," replied Dr. Velikhov. "Let me ask the Chief," meaning Gorbachev. A couple of days later, Velikhov told the Americans, "Gorbachev says OK. Now how soon could you get those instruments to the test site at Semipalitinsk?" 

What followed is a long and complicated story which I cannot relate with my limited time, but which in any case was extensively covered at the time by the press. The gist is this: the NRDC and the Soviet Academy launched a joint project to set up seismic stations at the test site in Kazakhstan, and reciprocally in Nevada.  (See the "References" at the foot of this paper).

The Reagan Administration was not pleased by this initiative. Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle dismissed the project as "an absurd ... private excursion," and there were numerous official complications, mostly from the American side, involving visas and export permits for the scientific equipment. Federal funding of Archambeau's unrelated research projects was cut in half. 

Conversely, the scientists had little patience with the politicians.  A typical response was that of Jack Everndon (coincidentally, a US government employee): 

"The history of opposition to a treaty eliminating or severely limiting nuclear tests is a mosaic of obfuscation, half-truths, and unadulterated lies.  Although the voiced arguments have usually been technical, the driving issues have been political and emotional."  (Everndon, 1988).

Thomas Cochran concurred:

"The Reagan Administration seems to be afraid of scientific truth.  The Administration stands in fear of a research program designed to demonstrate verification of a comprehensive test ban: a program which in fact improves its own capabilities to verify the existing Threshold Test Ban Treaty." (Cochran, 1987).

Despite this mutual hostility, the project proceeded since the prima facie absurdity of governmental interference with this well-publicized cooperative scientific research raised insurmountable public relations problems. 

The important lesson here is that the Russian and American scientists did not complain, or sulk, or launch a public relations campaign they simply acted. In response to the administration contention that "the science was not up to the task," they conducted experiments and published their findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Furthermore, the administration argument that "the Soviets would never allow it" was demolished by those standing seismic stations in Kazakhstan.

In this contest between political doctrine and scientific evidence and methodology, science prevailed. Thus the US opposition to seismic verification of test-ban compliance was swept away (though other official objections survived). And while as recently as October, 1999, the US Senate failed (by the narrowest of margins) to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the practical result is that both Russia and the United States have effectively ended nuclear testing.

All this was accomplished through the initiative of a few Russian and American scientists, combined with the sponsorship of the NGO Natural Resources Defense Council and the financial support of the Carnegie, Ford and MacArthur Foundations, in the political context of glasnost and perestroika. 

This inspiring success story prompts the question: what additional joint Russian and American initiatives in behalf of environmental protection, human rights and civil society might be possible in these difficult times?  I would like to suggest a few.

Recent history offers numerous examples of how political biases and economic interests have been overturned by scientific discovery. We were told that the abolition of DDT would cause crop failures, and that auto pollution controls were technologically unfeasible. Not so, as it turned out. Now we are hearing similar warnings about a unacceptable consequences of curtailing fossil fuel consumption and of the transition to a solar and hydrogen based economy. 

As with DDT and pollution control, it is time for the scientists to show otherwise. Like the seismologists at Semipalitinsk, the better course of action is not endless debate, but rather simple accomplishment. When the US auto industry said that low-pollution and energy efficient vehicles were "unfeasible," the Japanese proceeded to build such vehicles, and the US had no choice but to follow. So when the automobile-petroleum industrial complex tells us that hydrogen power is unfeasible and uneconomical, the appropriate response is to build a hydrogen vehicle. "Just do it!" 

What is one to do with an Administration which claims that warnings of global climate change are based on "weak science," in the face of almost unanimous scientific opinion to the contrary? Apparently, Bush-Cheney, Inc. will be unmoved by further argument. So political pressure and public opinion must alter their policies as scientific evidence apparently can not. The scientific case must be brought to the media and to the people. Scientists must leave the laboratories and classrooms and engage with the public, demanding access to the popular media, and reviving the "teach-ins" that were manifestly effective during the Viet Nam war. Furthermore, those 157 nations that signed on to Kyoto must insist that international cooperation entails reciprocity. If the US government expects support on the "war against terrorism," it must join the world-wide response to climate change. Finally, the world scientific community must enlist the support of that large segment of the American population that shares their concern about global warming.

The struggle to wean industrial civilization from fossil fuel addiction, and the associated dependence upon Middle-East oil, bears important implications for the Russian Federation. In the transitional short-term, the Western nations can break free of their accommodation with despotic petroleum dynasties by assisting in the development of petroleum resources in Russia now the second largest producer of oil. The influx of foreign capital (if it is not hoarded by the elites) can greatly benefit the Russian economy. Meanwhile, with the long-term in mind, Russian and Western scientists and technologists should work cooperatively to ease the inevitable transition to the solar and hydrogen technologies of the post-petroleum era.... 

Technical Note:  Nuclear tests yield a "seismographic signature" that is unequivocally distinct from that of an earthquake. (Seismologists call this the "focal mechanism"). Because of the different velocity of "P-waves" (pressure waves) and "S-waves" (shear waves), a seismograph can detect the distance, and thus the magnitude, of an earthquake. Accordingly, three seismological stations are required to locate the event (at the intersection of the distances separately calculated by the stations). The initial pulse of a natural earthquake will move the station either toward or away from the epicenter, depending upon the station's location relative to the ruptured fault. That movement is indicated by either an upward or downward initial movement of the recording stylus in the seismogram. In a natural earthquake, one or two to the three stations will record that downward pulse. With a nuclear test, all initial pulses will be positive -- there will be no initial downward movement of the stylus.


Archambeau, Charles B., Verifying a Test Ban: "A New Approach to Monitoring Underground Nuclear Tests," Issues in Science and Technology, Winter, 1986, p. 18.

Broad, William J., "Westerners Reach Soviet to Check Atom Site," The New York Times, July 6, 1986.

Cochran, Thomas B (187)., "The NRDC/Soviet Academy of Sciences Joint Nuclear Test Ban Verification Project," Physics and Society, 16:3, July, 1987. P. 5.

Evernden, Jack F. (1988), "Lies that Stopped a Test Ban," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October, 1988. p. 20.

Garelik, Glenn, "The Grounds for a Test Ban Treaty," Discover, June, 1987. p.50.

Morrison, David C., "Test Ban Compliance: Is Seismology Enough," Science, v. 236, April 24, 1987, p. 383.

Office of Technology Assessment, Seismic Verification of Nuclear Testing Treaties, Congress of the United States, Government Printing Office, May, 1988.




Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .