In DepthQ&A

Tapping a nuclear test ban treasure-trove

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Science  26 Jun 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6242, pp. 1410
DOI: 10.1126/science.348.6242.1410

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The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) has spawned a globe-girdling network of 300 detector stations that sniff out radionuclides, listen for low-frequency sounds, and record tremors—all to discern whether countries are carrying out clandestine nuclear weapons tests. And the treaty has not yet even come into force; the United States remains a prominent holdout. But the CTBT's $1 billion International Monitoring System is 90% complete and has scored notable successes. Among them: sizing up North Korea's nuclear tests, plotting the spread of radionuclides from the Fukushima nuclear accident, and tracking the spectacular Chelyabinsk meteorite as it broke up over Siberia in 2013. This global stethoscope is amassing a treasure trove of data. Initially, the CTBT Organization (CTBTO), based in Vienna, didn't share, but after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami—when the monitoring system could have given an early warning—things have loosened up. Now, timely data are sent to tsunami warning centers in 13 countries, as well as to civil aviation authorities and nuclear regulators. This glasnost is due in large part to Lassina Zerbo, director of CTBTO's International Data Centre from 2004 to 2013 and, since then, the organization's executive secretary. Zerbo spoke with Science for this Q&A on the eve of the 5th CTBT Science and Technology Conference.