Ear to the Ground, Listening for Nuclear Blasts

by |November 27, 2017
U.S. nuclear test on April 18, 1953. Photo: National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

U.S. nuclear test on April 18, 1953. Photo: National Nuclear Security Administration

Seismologist Lynn Sykes has been working for more than 50 years to halt the testing of nuclear bombs. His work, along with others’, has demonstrated that clandestine tests can be detected and measured using seismic waves. Development of this technology led up to the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. Since then, testing has nearly stopped, though key nations including the United States have so far failed to ratify the agreement. In his forthcoming book, Silencing the Bomb: One Scientist’s Quest to Halt Nuclear Testing, Sykes provides an insider’s look at the issues. Below, he discusses the science, his experiences and the current outlook. Sykes is the Higgins professor emeritus at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.


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Why this book now? Many people say climate change is our main threat. Has it become unfashionable to consider nuclear weapons?
Well, it’s exceedingly frightening, so I can understand why a lot of people don’t want to think about nuclear war. But more people could be killed with a large use of nuclear weapons, and those areas would be uninhabitable for a hundred years. I think climate change, sea level, are a big thing–right up there. But people have forgotten about nuclear war. It’s the topic that is the most important to our world. I’ve seen some horrendous things that some people have done with the test ban, and some very brave and forward things that others have done.

How did you get started with this?
My original work didn’t have anything to with nuclear testing; I was studying natural earthquakes. But the more I found out about it, I gradually got involved in research. Several of us made contributions to better monitoring of Russian explosions, and later, Chinese ones. I started writing papers, and they got picked up gradually in the 1980s, when the Democrats controlled the House and Senate. There were a lot of hearings. I participated in at least five.

You ran into a lot of resistance, saying that seismology couldn’t really pick up tests.
There was a large number of exceedingly conservative people, particularly in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and they attempted to bottle the subject up. When I became a member of the U.S. negotiating team for the Threshold Test Ban Treaty in 1974, virtually all the information on how do you convert seismic measurements into estimates of yield of Russian explosions was controlled by just two people. And they seemed quite determined that there not be a comprehensive test-ban treaty.

By now, verification through seismology seems well accepted. But your book points out  that efforts to put a test ban into full, formal effect are now in their seventh decade. What is at the root of resistance in the United States and other nations?
There is only a fringe that continues to insist we can’t detect explosions. But there are people who claim that the United States should resume testing of our weapons, that the weapons are old, that the Russians are ahead of us, and we will be in dire straits unless we test. For a lot of them, it is that the United States should keep ahead of everyone else. Trump is arguing for that today, even though the U.S. and Russia have had parity in their nuclear weapons and their delivery systems at long distance since the 1970s.

The United States and Russia have dramatically reduced weapons stockpiles since the 1980s. Meantime, other nations including North Korea now have bombs, or might get them. Has the world become more dangerous, or less?
The most dangerous nations today are Pakistan and India. They’re both building up their atomic weapons, and there’s a danger there of one country thinking that the other, based on poor evidence, is starting to attack them, or is planning to attack them, and for them to pre-empt. On the other hand, there is the new treaty with Iran limiting their development of nuclear weapons for at least 10 years. Libya no longer has attempts to get nuclear weapons, and the same with Iraq. Of course, we can worry about other countries getting them. But it would be difficult for a terrorist group to get the materials and make a bomb and to do it all in secret. People tend to blow up what North Korea could do. Here, we have a thousand weapons that could be aimed at them long range. And we worry about them being able to deliver one nuclear weapon to the United States. It shouldn’t be a worry unless Mr. Kim is entirely crazy. But it’s true that Kim is reckless. And it’s true that with Trump and Kim, both of them are pushing us into a more dangerous area.

Is it possible to draw a line between science and activism?
I think there isn’t a line. There are people that are activists that don’t have the scientific or political credentials to work on the subject, and yet they do. Being a scientist gives me an opening where I can use my science and what I’ve learned since 1965 in a positive way.

Will we ever get rid of nuclear weapons?
Every time someone proposes that we need to move toward eliminating them, there is a howl that goes up. It’s the same howl that went up with the new UN Ban the Bomb treaty [opened for signature in September 2017], in which countries that sign claim they will not develop, not share knowledge, and not acquire nuclear weapons. Of course, that does not include any of the countries that already have nuclear weapons. What it says to me is that we can’t all at once go from a lot of weapons to nothing. That we have to keep taking positive, real steps to try and at least reduce the threat of nuclear war.


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