The Straits Times (Singapore)

300 spy stations to police nuclear test-ban treaty


By R. Senthilnathan in Vienna

MORE than 300 monitoring stations worldwide will be prepared in coming months to ensure that no country conducts a secret underground nuclear test, a United Nations official said here.

Mr Wolfgang Hoffmann, a senior UN disarmament officer, said the 321 stations -- made up of seismological, radionuclide, hydroacoustic and infrasound-centre monitors -- would be connected to their centre in Vienna online, delivering data of any seismic activity, be they from earthquakes, underground tests, radioactive fallout or acoustics.

These stations, along with the International Data Centre (IDC) in Vienna, will be the cornerstone of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) which was adopted by the UN last September with the aim of prohibiting nuclear tests.

While the monitoring stations will collect data, the task of the IDC will be to analyse what it receives from the stations and come to conclusions about whether any suspicious nuclear activity has been conducted by a member country.

The treaty is to be monitored by the CTBT Office to be located in Vienna. Until the CTBT comes into force, the task of establishing the network of stations and the IDC has fallen on a so-called preparatory commission and a provisional technical secretariat, with the latter headed by Mr Hoffmann.

Both the network and the IDC are expected to be up and running by the end of next year.

The treaty has so far been signed by 144 nations, but ratified by only two, Fiji and Qatar.

The CTBT will come into force after all 44 countries with nuclear facilities -- military or civil -- ratify it, and that is its problem.

Two countries, India and Pakistan -- the so-called threshold states which have nuclear facilities and are considered to have nuclear weapons -- are refusing to sign.

Mr Jacob Salebi, South Africa's Ambassador to the UN in Geneva who heads the preparatory commission, said all measures of persuasion should be adopted so that those out of the CTBT come in.

After participating at its second week-long session, which ended on Friday in Vienna, Mr Salebi said no country could exist in isolation.

If the treaty does not come into effect by 1999, a high-level conference is to be held to seek ways of breaking the impasse.

The IDC has not yet been established, but the test-ban treaty verification experts are currently gathering experience at a prototype centre in Arlington, US, where data from about 100 stations are gathered.

"We are testing certain components of the verification system," Mr Hoffmann said. "They give us a fairly good basis to view what is going on."

The 321 stations will not be established from scratch. Rather, they will be existing stations in a number of countries currently doing work in their respective fields, but for different purposes.

They just have to be inspected and have the necessary hardware and software installed to monitor the required tasks under the terms of the CTBT.

Mr Hoffmann said work to upgrade 50 of the existing monitoring stations would be done this year.

Most of the stations, numbering 170, will be seismological stations, since underground testing is the standard mode for testing nuclear devices at present.

Of the 321 stations, about 80 will be in Asia, including Australia, Iran, Mongolia and New Zealand.

Copyright © 1997 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.