By Abby Pokraka
Adding to the list of things that make it feel like the world is falling apart, according to reports, the Trump Administration recently discussed conducting an underground nuclear test for the first time since 1992. Policy experts, grassroots organizations and citizens from across the country were quick to condemn this action. Apparently, even the National Nuclear Security Administration thought it was a bad idea. While the White House might see this as a way to gain advantage over Russia and China at the negotiating table, it would actually open a Pandora’s box of consequences leading to a global arms race.
Concerns over a return to nuclear testing by the Trump Administration have been around for some time. In June 2019, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley said “Russia has conducted nuclear weapons tests that have created nuclear yield.” This unsubstantiated report came amid general criticism of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), an agreement that prohibits nuclear explosive testing of any size in any location. Months earlier, Senators Tom Cotton (AR), Marco Rubio (FL), John Cornyn (TX) and James Lankford (OK) had written a letter to President Trump asking him to un-sign the CTBT. More recently, a 2020 U.S. State Department Compliance Report summary stated there are “concerns regarding [China’s] adherence to the ‘zero yield’ standard.” The accusations against China and Russia were allegedly both brought up at the May 15 National Security Council meeting during which Trump Administration officials discussed using an explosive nuclear test as a negotiating tool. While the meeting ended without a decision, it gave new life to fears of resumed nuclear testing.
What is so troubling about the Trump Administration’s rhetoric is the fact that the United States does not need to test nuclear weapons. It is true that questions over the reliability of our stockpile in the absence of explosive testing was one of the reasons the CTBT wasn’t ratified by the United States in 1999. However, the success of the Stockpile Stewardship Program has enabled scientists at the national laboratories to conduct advanced simulations and experiments to better understand how the stockpile ages. The United States can and does maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal without explosive testing.
If the United States does conduct an explosive nuclear test, other countries might decide to conduct tests as well. Many analysts believe a U.S. test would “be an invitation for other nuclear-armed countries to follow suit.” This is a major concern among our allies and for countries throughout the world.
A U.S. nuclear test would also disrupt what little remains of negotiations with North Korea. Two UN Security Council resolutions, unanimously adopted, demand that North Korea refrain from further nuclear tests (UNSCR 1718) and join the CTBT (UNSCR 1874). If the United States decides an explosive nuclear test is needed to compel China or Russia, it would lose any leverage it had to prevent North Korea from doing the same.
Conducting a nuclear test for the first time in 28 years would also raise questions about the location of a test. The likely choice would be the Nevada Nuclear Security Site (NNSS), the site of 1,021 previous tests. The reports of a Trump test drew instant protests from downwinder advocates and Members of Congress representing Nevada and Utah. Rep. Ben McAdams (D-UT) stated “Utah families are still suffering and dying as a result of health effects from nuclear tests conducted decades ago […] and I am not willing to subject more families to this type of exposure.” The Las Vegas Sun editorial board made its position clear: “Nevada will not be subjected to nuclear bombing again.” It’s hard to see a convincing reason to put citizens through the potentially life-threatening effects of another nuclear test in order to negotiate with other countries.
As this country deals with a pandemic and ongoing racial injustices, testing a nuclear weapon would needlessly add to the turmoil. Opening the door for other countries to test allows them to catch up to our level and undermine our advantage in both computer modeling and testing data. Citizens near and downwind of the NNSS have stated they will not endure the horrors of testing again. So it should be clear: the United States does not need to test a nuclear weapon for technical reasons, should not test a weapon for moral reasons, and would be best served by pushing to end testing once and for all.
At the very least, the United States should maintain a moratorium on nuclear testing. Beyond that, it might be time to take another look at CTBT ratification. The concerns relating to maintaining our stockpile and the ability to detect when and where nuclear tests occur were addressed more than a decade ago. The CTBT’s verification system proves to be a success. Besides, a renewed U.S. discussion on CTBT ratification might be something China would want to talk about, and isn’t getting China to talk about arms control the point?