CTBTO Youth Group to Secure Nuclear-Test-Free World for the Next Gen

Kseniia Pirnavskaia
Master’s student, KAIST Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy

Globalism in the hallway

This article will be a more or less personal story that depicts my journey with the CTBTO Youth Group. Before I introduce its nuts and bolts and the acronym you may not have heard of if you are not a “nuclear person,” let me tell you one thing – this youth group has changed the way I understand globalism, purpose, and community. I used to think that globalism is something taught in the geography textbooks at school. Even the experience of being an exchange student at the high school in the US did not open up that much for me, as compared to the Second Science and Diplomacy Symposium organized by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) in Vienna which was the first international conference I attended as a CTBTO Youth Group (CYG) member. The event was not just about attractive receptions and high-level panels for me. I realized that under the cover of strict suits and pompous conversations, people were laughing, having some coffee, networking, caring, asking questions, and learning about each other and what they can do collaboratively to bring about change. I met the same young faces from Uganda, Kenya, France, India, Pakistan, the US, Germany, South Korea, China, and many other states, coming from various professional and social backgrounds, speaking different languages and taking different coffees – someone with lemon, someone with sugar depending on the national and personal traditions. This diversity felt extremely new but freeing. The whole world was in the hallway of Vienna International Center talking about different angles of one particular issue – nuclear explosions. They also shared the common goal that was so strong and global – to ban nuclear testing.

<Figure 1> The Second Science Diplomacy Symposium, MEPhI- CYG members delegation

CTBT/CTBTO Background

To start, let us go over the basics. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty[1] (CTBT) bans all kinds of nuclear explosions by everyone, everywhere, i.e., in the atmosphere, underwater, underground, on the Earth’s surface.[2] It is vital for global security because such a ban would prevent countries without nukes from developing and testing nuclear explosive devices, and prevent nukes possessors from modernizing and improving the existing weapons. Moreover, this legal instrument would prevent damage to people and the environment from radioactivity due to testing. It is unique due to its comprehensiveness: other existing treaties usually have partial nature meaning that they only restrict testing in some areas. For instance, the Partial Test Ban Treaty bans testing only in the atmosphere, outer space and under water, leaving a legal opportunity to test nukes underground (see – PTBT[3]). Besides, national moratoriums are temporary and unreliable instruments – once the government changes its political preferences, it can easily suspend the moratorium and resume testing, based solely on the political will of its president and pure serendipity sometimes.

CTBT sounds like a great Treaty; however, it has not yet entered into force regardless of its almost universal nature. Although 185 states signed and 170 ratified, there are 44 Annex 2 states that must sign and ratify the Treaty for it to become the law. These states are assigned to this special group because they participated in the negotiations from 1994 to 1996 and possessed at that time nuclear power or research reactors. Eight remaining states out of 44: Iran, Israel, India, Pakistan, Egypt, China, the US, and the DPRK have not yet signed and/or ratified the CTBT due to the challenging regional and global political climate.

Nevertheless, the CTBT has become a game-changer due to its verification regime even without the entry into force. A number of forms of a verification regime has been created including the International Monitoring System (IMS), International Data Center (IDC), and On-site Inspection mechanism (valid only after entry into force). The IMS is especially fascinating as it consists of 337 stations worldwide using three wave-technologies – infrasound, hydroacoustic and seismic; and radionuclide identification technology to monitor all seismic events and determine the ones that are nuclear man-made explosions. For example, all nuclear tests conducted by DPRK were detected by the IMS.[4][5][6][7]

The CTBTO Preparatory Commission, headquartered in Vienna, was created in 1996 as an interim organization responsible for building and enhancing the verification regime and promoting the Treaty’s entry into force. Currently, the Executive Secretary of the CTBTO is Dr. Robert Floyd.

<Figure 2> CTBTO Executive Secretary Dr. Robert Floyd

Interestingly, in 2016, the CTBTO was one of the first international organizations (IO) to acknowledge the absence of youth from high-level discussions on global issues.

<Figure 3> Vienna International Center, CTBTO headquarters, Austria
<Figure 4> CTBTO logo

The essentiality of youth participation is easily explained by the fact that the youth will be directly and most strongly affected by the consequences of the global problem discussed by IOs, states, and other international arena actors. It is a tick-tacking bomb (literally and figuratively) awaiting for the next generation, which is why it seems preposterous that the next gen is excluded from the discussion and even decision-making. The launch of the CTBTO Youth Group was a stepping stone towards changing this state of affairs and giving younger voices space to be heard and listened to. The CTBTO placed youth at the forefront of its outreach efforts – creating an initiative led by youth for youth.[8]

CTBTO Youth Group


<Figure 5> CTBTO Youth Group logo

I believe that the group was created not only with a purpose to invite the next gen to the table, but also to raise the generation of future scientists and policymakers all over the globe adhering to the paradigm where the test ban is the crucial step towards disarmament and better global security. The next generation of leaders united in the global network from the very start of their careers will for sure advocate for and promote the Treaty as they grow as specialists and move higher and higher within their respective field. “Tick-tacking bomb” of the strong future would lead advocates, acting as a soft power for now, until they become in power over the situation against the “bomb” of flawed and weak nuclear testing international legal framework – the game which is happening now.

The group was established in 2016, and it turned five years old in February 2021. It started as a community of fewer than ten people, and over five years, it has grown to the membership of more than 1000 young professionals, both future/current scientists and policymakers from 111 countries, and with 16 coordinators, managing the leadership of the group, the one of whom I became in 2020. As an education coordinator, I am responsible for the social media campaigns for raising awareness about nuclear testing in general and our specific initiatives within the CYG. Moreover, together with the team of coordinators, we set up educational initiatives to offer inclusive and accessible opportunities for youth to grasp the topic. Right now, we are working on the online educational course – “Deep Dive into the CTBT and CTBTO.” 

One of the most considerable assets of the group is diversity. The participants of the group come from 111 countries. On the pie chart, you can see how many people come from each region (Fig. 6).

<Figure 6> Regional Distribution (statistics as of March 2021)[9]

Moreover, since its foundation gender awareness and access have been core values in the network. For this reason, the group is mostly gender balanced. See the chart below (Fig. 7).

<Figure 7> Gender Distribution (statistics as of March 2021)[10]

The key to the change is the overarching friendships created among the members[11] who in the future will be able to transform their friendships into global cooperation towards a common goal. Today – we are a group of young and passionate students/early career professionals that go celebrating after the successful conference day tomorrow – we are a group of government officials whose bonds may spark the change not only in the hearts of others but in signatures and ratifications.

<Figure 8> CYG members at the Science and Technology Conference 2019

The creation of the group was highly bolstered by the former Executive Secretary of the CTBTO, Lassina Zerbo, who recently has said that every single one of us has the potential to make a difference as we are not the leaders of tomorrow but already leaders of today. He also acknowledges that the nuclear test ban can become a law only with the help of youth.[12] I think he was a one-of-its-kind global leader when I met him for the first time back in 2018, being myself a no-name and presenting him my ideas during the presentation contest “Vision of the CTBT.” I thought that all these pompous phrases are a shiny façade and nothing more; however, over a short conversation about the potential use of my project with him, I saw the passion and eagerness of Dr. Zerbo to communicate with youth and work with us side by side. He was attentive and asked deep questions, demonstrating his desire to participate, and for me, discovering areas to work on in the future.

<Figure 9> Former CTBTO Executive Secretary Dr. Lassina Zerbo

The aim is to achieve entry into force, though a valid question – how can youth contribute to something closely intertwined with political complexities and troublesome regional political climate?


CTBTO Youth Group has five primary objectives[13] that shape and direct the activities of members and coordinators.

  1. Revitalize the discussion around the CTBT among former, current, and emerging policymakers, scientists, academics, experts, and the media;
  2. Raise awareness of the importance of the nuclear-test-ban on a global level;
  3. Build a basis for knowledge transfer to the next generation;
  4. Involve new technologies in advancing the CTBT’s further universalization and entry into force;
  5. Place the CTBT on the agenda of the world’s most critical nuclear-related events.

The activities of the group come in various forms: 1) participating as speakers, journalists, volunteers, members of delegation in the leading CTBTO conference, such as Science and Technology Conference or Science and Diplomacy Symposium, also in the other international events like Paris Peace Forum, World Science Forum, World Youth Forum, United Nations General Assembly, etc.; 2) participating in the remote contests with project ideas and essays; 3) organizing national and global projects on the topic of nuclear testing involving other CYG members; 4) raising awareness and promoting the Treaty through educational initiatives and social media; 5) building bridges with other youth organizations to amplify the message and find connection between nuclear testing and other global concerns; 6) advocating for the nuclear-test-ban in the country of residence, especially if the country is a remaining Annex 2 state whose signature and ratification is needed; 7) conducting researches about the CTBT and its significance for the global security and disarmament process. I indeed have seen everything, starting from drawing contests for school students, finishing with serious global educational initiatives, or research conducted by groups of young professionals. Basically, the scheme is in a nutshell – organization and community empower you, and then you empower others, inviting them to the discussion by teaching, debating, and spreading the word.

As for me, I am an education enthusiast. In my opinion, education is the most vital tool since in such controversial issues like nukes, informed opinion is essential to make any decisions. Otherwise, it may result in a catastrophe. It does not relate only to high-profile politicians or scientists. It also applies to the general public, whose voice is important. However, many people tend not to speak up because they have no idea about nukes testing; for many – these topics are archaisms of the Cold War, which is false; some citizens are indifferent. Therefore, state actors monopolize nuclear-related politics, which is wrong because once the wrong decision is made, it will affect everyone most excruciatingly. People must participate and express their position regarding these problems, and for them to do it confidently and in an informed way, we, specialists, activists, teachers, youth, should teach them the basics at least. I genuinely believe that if we arm the general public and especially younger generations with basic nuclear knowledge, it will have enough power to disarm the world at some point. Therefore, most of my projects are education-related.

Since I joined in 2018, I have participated in the CTBTO major conferences, being a speaker, presenting a poster, and delivering presentations with my ideas regarding educational initiatives. I have been a citizen-journalist, being a part of the Newsroom – a group of citizen journalists among the CTBTO Youth Group. In the 2021 Science and Technology Conference (SnT), I held a public dialogue with the former Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo on the matter of the evolution of SnT, took an interview from the eminent advocate of the Treaty and the senior journalist of France 24 Sanam Shantyaei, and presented my project Youth Academy of Sciences, which is a research initiative for CYGs supervised by the Group of Eminent Persons, which I will talk more about later. This research initiative would unite young professionals from both policy and technical backgrounds to explore the CTBT and CTBTO-related topics.

<Figure 10> CYG-Executive Secretary dialogue during the high-level opening of the SnT 2021

During my undergraduate degree, I founded the Science Diplomacy club inspired by my first Science and Diplomacy Symposium and the school of the same name for students at my university to study the interconnection between science and diplomacy and why such intersection matters for political conundrums associated with anything nuclear. If we were to seek a similar context within the STS and STP context, we studied techno-politics[14], which Gabriel Hecht highlighted in her works. Techno-politics is an umbrella term for politics that involve and depend highly on technologies. The case of nuclear testing and generally nukes is an excellent exemplar field of techno-politics. Together with the club team, we organized seminars, round tables, guest-lectures from prominent experts, the UN and NPT Review Conference Models, project and presentation contests, and career talks for students to have extracurricular opportunities to grasp the field and start their research. As for our leading project, the School has become international due to the online format, hosting students from 15 countries in 2020.

<Figure 11> II Moscow Science Diplomacy School: The NPT: Preserving the Legacy

These projects included the CYG and CTBT-related components because the club reflected my interests and activities, and this topic was one of my priorities. Students were motivated during the discussions and interactive seminars; so that most of the club members had become active participants of our group, taking part in various projects and events.

The fair question to ask would be: so, what?  Why do these projects matter? Because it does not seem like CYGs are invited to the negotiation table? The youth in this context is seen as the outreach and advocacy tool, or even let us use the term soft power. The power of voice, local projects, opinion pieces, researches, grassroots initiatives. The power of the long-term. The Treaty has been opened for signature for 25 years. Though there is a certain degree of frustration regarding this, the verification regime built secures its eternity and necessity for all signatories as the IMS is not only used for nuclear test detection but also contributes to tsunami warning, preventing or mitigating the effects of natural disasters, climate change research, sniffing the radioactive emissions, recording whale song, and others.[15] Thus IMS buys time for youth to act as a soft power and proceed with long-term initiatives.

Science and Policy

One of the distinct characteristics of the group and organization itself is their interdisciplinary science and technology and policy nature due to both technological and diplomatic endeavors of the CTBTO. The CTBTO youth group is a platform where the common field and goal connect young scientists and policymakers. They constantly interact, which amplifies the cooperation due to varied expertise and angles from which the issue is viewed. Moreover, both representatives dive into each other’s fields to better understand and cultivate awareness on the subject from both policy and technological sides. When I joined the group, I understood why I needed to study physics in my undergrad international relations degree. Understanding all the IMS station technologies requires knowledge of wave and nuclear physics to get nuts and bolts of the infrasound, hydroacoustic, seismic, and radionuclide detection. And my undergrad physics courses allowed me to grasp the nuclear-related technical questions much better and easier.

Group of Eminent Persons and CYG Task Force 

Moreover, the group of young scientists and policymakers are accompanied by the Group of Eminent Persons (GEM) – high-level experts from different fields who have pursued great careers in related spheres and support the Treaty. One of their support mechanisms is mentorship provided for youth during significant events and some other projects. This mentorship is vital for knowledge and experience transfer, promoting youth within the field, and supporting them on career paths.

Besides, notably, CYG is not part of the CTBTO. However, CYG has the CYG Task Force, a group of the CTBTO employees who oversee and bolster the group’s work together with the coordination team, representing each region (as of in the CTBT), and three functions – communication, education, and outreach.

Rationale to join

My rationale for joining was relatively uninformed at the beginning. The professor at my previous university was passionate about the idea of the CTBTO Youth Group and promoted it together with one of the program’s alumni. I was a sophomore who had no idea what it was and was not as interested due to the lack of knowledge, but I wanted to try everything I was offered in terms of academics and profession to find myself a career path. However, after taking a deep dive into the nuclear testing topic, I was appalled by horrifying statistics. Notably, more than 2000 nuclear tests were carried out worldwide between 1945 and 1996.[16] After the CTBT was opened for signature, 10 more nuclear tests were conducted by India, Pakistan and DPRK[17], the states outside of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)[18] and CTBT.

Why would I care about these numbers? First, nuclear testing is a milking cow for states to modify and enhance their nuclear arsenals, which is in no way beneficial, as more weapons of mass destruction emerge, the less secure the world is becoming. Moreover, although the major nuclear testing happened in the 20th century, the last test was conducted in 2017 by DPRK, which hints that there is no guarantee it will not happen again as there is no universal instrument in force to restrict it. Finally, despite the geopolitical and military power of nuclear testing, to me, the most petrifying factor is the adverse environmental and humanitarian consequences of testing.

My home is Russia, a successor of the Soviet Union with a long history of nuclear testing. Specifically, the scale of the adverse effects caused by this activity in the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site struck me in the heart. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had several nuclear polygons across the Union. However, the Semipalatinsk case (polygon in Kazakhstan) is exceptional due to its location, which was not too far from villages (if compared with Novaya Zemlya Polygon) where people remained living without knowing that they were exposed to radiation. For instance, more than a million people were officially recognized as victims of nuclear tests in Kazakhstan (where the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site was situated).[19] I have recently filmed a podcast about it for my Disaster Policy Class with two prominent guests, Alimzhan Akhmetov, Director of the Center for International Security and Policy (​Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan) and Togzhan Kassenova, a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a senior fellow with the Project on International Security, Commerce, and Economic Statecraft (PISCES) at the Center for Policy Research, SUNY-Albany. They offered a talk about their trip to villages where survivors live, where they have met with families who suffered or are still suffering from nuclear tests conducted in the past century. It was striking to hear about how many children are still being born with various congenital diseases due to mutation caused by radiation, or about women who if any deformation appears after prenatal screening are forced by the hospital in the city of Semey (former Semipalatinsk) to make an abortion. This happens now, even though the test site was closed in 1991, 30 years ago. 30! What if testing resumes now? – We will be suffering from consequences long after they will have stopped for sure.

Based on many inspiring examples, in the related fields such as disarmament, of how youth participation did lead to tangible results, I think with decent work and resilience it is possible to really impact the agenda regarding the CTBT. For instance, youth has been extremely active in International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons[20] (ICAN) which promotes the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons[21] (TPNW). ICAN is considered intergenerational movement because no one is too young or too old to contribute to the world free of nukes.[22] Therefore, youth was engaged in raising awareness and educating grassroots which collectively with other factors led to the salient achievement –  TPNW entry into force in 2021 regardless of nuclear weapon states’ boycott against it. There are other youth-targeting initiatives like Youth Fusion – Abolition 2000 Youth Network[23] and Youth 4 Disarmament[24] that do similar things in related fields. The overall network of nuclear activists is large and anyone would be able to find something closer to themselves. If the topic of nuclear testing is something you are grappling with in your research, personal life or out of your curiosity, CTBTO Youth Group would be the good first step to start off your nuclear activism journey.

<Figure 12> Joint photo from the II Science and Diplomacy Symposium

[1]  Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, 24 September 1996.

[2] 「Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization」, https://www.ctbto.org/

[3] Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water (Partial Test Ban Treaty), 10 October 1963.

[4] 「Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization」, https://www.ctbto.org/the-treaty/developments-after-1996/2017-sept-dprk/

[5] 「Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization」,  https://www.ctbto.org/the-treaty/developments-after-1996/2016-dprk-announced-nuclear-test/

[6] 「Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization」,  https://www.ctbto.org/the-treaty/developments-after-1996/2009-dprk-announced-nuclear-test/

[7] 「Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization」,  https://www.ctbto.org/press-centre/highlights/2007/the-ctbt-verification-regime-put-to-the-test-the-event-in-the-dprk-on-9-october-2006/

[8] 「CTBTO Youth Group」,  https://youthgroup.ctbto.org/

[9] 「CTBTO Youth Group / Anniversary Edition CTBTO Youth Group Report 2021 」, https://youthgroup.ctbto.org/

[10] 「CTBTO Youth Group / Anniversary Edition CTBTO Youth Group Report 2021 」, https://youthgroup.ctbto.org/

[11] 「Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization」, https://www.ctbto.org/

[12] 「CTBTO Youth Group / Anniversary Edition CTBTO Youth Group Report 2021 」, https://youthgroup.ctbto.org/

[13] 「CTBTO Youth Group」,  https://youthgroup.ctbto.org/

[14] Hecht, G. (2009), The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II, MIT Press.

[15] 「Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization 」, https://www.ctbto.org/fileadmin/user_upload/public_information/2010/civil_and_scientific_applications_web_small_2010.pdf

[16] 「Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization」, https://www.ctbto.org/nuclear-testing/history-of-nuclear-testing/world-overview/

[17] Ibid.

[18] Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, 5 March 1970.

[19] Note on the issue: “On health protection and social protection of the population, living in the zone of exposure of the former Semipalatinsk nuclear test site”, from the materials of the hearings organized by Committee on Economic Reform and Regional Development Mazhilis of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan, archive of the Karaganda Ecological Museum, 24 June 2005.

[20] 「ICAN」, https://www.icanw.org/

[21] Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 22 January 2021

[22] 「A New Generation Against the Bomb」, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/a-new-generation-against-the-bomb/

[23] 「Youth Fusion – Abolition 2000 Youth Network」,  youth-fusion.org

[24] 「Youth 4 Disarmament」, https://www.youth4disarmament.org/home?language_content_entity=en

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