The Big Bang – Halting Nuclear Testing During the Cold War

The Big Bang – Halting Nuclear Testing During the Cold War

During the mid 1950’s there was an alarming escalation in the testing of nuclear weapons, mostly by the two superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union, although the United Kingdom was also involved.

This was known as the nuclear arms race and both superpowers were stockpiling nuclear weapons at a frightening rate at the height of the Cold War period. However there was the uneasy and rising feeling that some day one of these utterly destructive weapons would be used in anger.

The other issue of the time was the constant testing of nuclear devices, particularly in the atmosphere where significant radioactive fallout was produced that dispersed across large distances. This testing began in earnest during the late 1940’s and rose sharply across the next decade. Between 1953 and 1958, the USA, Soviet Union and United Kingdom conducted 231 atmospheric nuclear tests between them, some of which were 1000 times larger than the Hiroshima bomb.

Even within the cold war politics of the time it was obvious that there were no winners in this situation and that it would be in everyone’s interest to limit or even suspend nuclear testing.

The Soviets led the charge, and on 31 March 1958 announced that they would halt nuclear testing, but conditional on the other nuclear powers doing the same. However this announcement was met with suspicion from the US and UK Governments, who at any rate wanted to complete their testing programs before any moratorium was agreed to.

Another stumbling block was verification. The nuclear powers were uncomfortable with the idea of on-site inspections and initially rejected any proposals along this line.

However the Soviet declaration was the first step in a process that led to the signing of the limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in August 1963 – that prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in outer space, under water and in the atmosphere. It was signed in Moscow by Dean Rusk (USA), Andrei Gromyko (USSR) and Alec Douglas Home (UK). France and China were invited to sign but refused to do so.


Image: “Baker Shot”, a nuclear test by the United States at Bikini Atoll in 1946, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.