A chilling wind blows in from the Gobi desert: Tests must halt if we are to stop the spread of the bomb, says John Hassard

LAST week the Chinese government carried out its 38th nuclear weapons test - the country's 16th underground nuclear explosion. The bomb had an explosive power equivalent to about 20,000 tons of TNT - approximately the same size as the one that destroyed Hiroshima.

Last week too, President George Bush signed a bill imposing an immediate nine- month moratorium on US nuclear testing - a moratorium that effectively includes Britain, because the UK depends on the use of American facilities in the Nevada desert to carry out tests of nuclear weapons. France and Russia have already declared unilateral moratoriums on nuclear tests, so four out of the five nuclear powers have stopped testing.

For the first time since the nuclear age dawned with an explosion at Alamogordo in the New Mexico desert on 16 June 1945, there is the possibility that all nuclear testing might be ended - a move that would revive efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries and could limit the manufacture of new and ever more sophisticated weapons by the acknowledged nuclear nations.

But the moratoriums are only temporary, and the signs are that the Chinese, far from ending their tests, intend to carry out another one soon. The issue is urgent, because the main international bulwark against the further spread of the bomb, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), comes up for renewal in three years' time.

The site of the Chinese explosion was a bleak granite ridge rising to 8,800ft (2,700m) in Xinjiang province, one of a series of ridges pushing east into Kazakhstan and north into Mongolia. They rise like islands above the dunes and saltpans of the Gobi desert.

China's nuclear technicians have dug a long, gently downward-sloping tunnel into the ridge's side, just below its crest. They have dumped the excavated rock in screes down the valley. Giant pockmarks scar the landscape; here and there the sand has turned to glass, and monstrous blemishes have scorched the rock.

On 25 September, just one second before 4pm Nanking time, the ridge shook and a low rumble was heard above the wind. Ripples of sound spread out round and through the Earth to arrays of listening seismographs thousands of miles away. Computers studied their shapes and types, and homed in on the end of the tunnel in that barren ridge.

Six countries have openly tested nuclear weapons: the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, China, France and India (although India claims it was a 'peaceful nuclear device'). Other countries have weapons but know they do not even need to test them, unless it be for some political reason. Others have tested all the non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons, including non-nuclear detonations. All those countries with open or covert programmes have the necessary delivery system, whether it be intercontinental ballistic missile, jet aircraft or converted tugboat. Some obtained nuclear weapons because they wished to continue eating at the diplomatic top table, others because they wished to be invited to it.

The NPT, which came into force in 1970, is the most visible international stricture on the spread of nuclear weapons. Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue effective negotiations 'in good faith' on measures to stop the nuclear arms race at an early date and to bring about nuclear disarmament. Members of the NPT are also supposed to work towards 'a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control'.

Until the Start treaty in July 1991 there had been no real sign of any members of the nuclear weapons 'club' even noticing this last provision. And there is one issue that really galls the nuclear 'threshold' nations: that of nuclear testing. Short of dropping a nuclear weapon on somebody else's city, testing is the most potent way of showing you have the bomb and that you are trying to improve it.

Testing is seized upon by countries without nuclear weapons as a sign of the nuclear powers' hypocrisy. And threshold countries such as India regard the NPT as nuclear apartheid, designed to maintain the asymmetric status quo and suppress the honest aspirations of developing countries.

What further annoys the nuclear have- nots is the fact that, while the nuclear haves have been trumpeting the virtues of the NPT, they have secretly been allowing the export of nuclear weapons technology to those willing to pay enough. In recent years, the league table of guilty parties has been topped by Germany, Britain, the Soviet Union, the US and France. Even the revelations about the Department of Trade and Industry's complicity in dealing with Iraq appear not to have dampened our ardour in selling what we can where we can.

China, since 1984, has maintained a 'discreet and responsible attitude so as to ensure that (nuclear) co-operation is solely for peaceful purposes . . .' according to Jiang XinXing, head of China's nuclear industry. But it was not always so. China's past history of nuclear trade with Pakistan, only parts of which have been uncovered so far, is particularly interesting.

Until President Bush signed the American test ban, those who urged nuclear restraint had little credibility because Britain, the US and China continued to violate the spirit of the NPT by testing weapons.

A Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) would help, but could it be verified? Using only commercial satellite imagery, Vipin Gupta, of Imperial College, London, published a prediction a month ago that China was about to conduct a test, and a week ago Imperial 'heard' its echo, using seismic data. This was a very small test, far smaller than the last Chinese test on 21 May. And China made no particular attempt to hide the test - why should it, since it was breaking no agreement? Militarily significant nuclear tests can be detected by present technology, but given a sensible upgrade of present systems the ability could be vastly enhanced. (Each test costs some dollars 70m, so the savings from a CTBT could finance the verification hardware and personnel needed).

This is not just an academic exercise: we are running out of time. If the NPT is to have any chance of surviving and being made workable beyond 1995, the international community needs to solve the problems shown up by Iraq. Establishing a CTBT is not the whole solution, but it is an essential first step. Rapid growth in the number of nuclear haves is frighteningly close. After that, the spread into sub-

national groups will turn inevitably from nightmare into reality.

The writer is a nuclear physicist at Imperial College, London, and a consultant to the Verification Technology Information Centre.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions