House, Senate Differ on Nuclear Testing Proposal


Members of Congress continue to push back against the Trump administration’s reported consideration of a nuclear weapons test as negotiators from the House and Senate soon meet to determine whether to allocate funds for such a potential test in next year’s defense bill.

The Washington Post first reported in May that the administration had discussed that month whether to conduct a nuclear weapons test. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea said June 24 that he was “unaware of any particular reason to test at this stage,” but that the United States “[maintains] the ability to conduct nuclear tests if we see any reason to do so.”

Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, echoed Billingslea during a Sept. 17 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “At this time, there is no condition...where I would recommend the need for nuclear testing,” he said. “But I would say though that it is important for the nation to maintain an ability to do a nuclear test should an issue arise in the future, and I’ve been formally documented in making that recommendation.”

Russia has continued to denounce the United States for contemplating a return to nuclear testing. The Russian Foreign Ministry said June 30 that the U.S. stance is “destructive” and asked the Trump administration to “reconsider its position.” The ministry also said that the status of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was “seriously deteriorating.”

Meanwhile, the House and the Senate differ on whether to include money in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2021 for the Trump administration to conduct a nuclear weapons test should it choose to do so.

On June 15, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) amendment to its version of the FY2021 NDAA that would allocate $10 million for a potential nuclear weapons test. A month later, in its version, the House adopted Rep. Ben McAdams’ (D-Utah) amendment, which blocks funding for any nuclear weapons testing.

These amendments will likely be a source of conflict during the upcoming NDAA conference process, for which a date has yet to be set. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), sponsor of the “Preserving Leadership Against Nuclear Explosives Testing (PLANET) Act,” sent a Sept. 10 letter to NDAA conferees requesting that they retain provisions banning nuclear explosive tests. He was joined by 21 of his Senate colleagues, including Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

The senators warned, “A U.S. nuclear weapons testing restart would give license to other nuclear armed countries to conduct their own tests—including Russia and China, whose nuclear arsenals are especially in our national interest to restrain.”

Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and 35 colleagues authored a similar letter in the House, citing the lasting harmful effects of nuclear testing on public health and the environment. “We must not provide foreign nations with justification to openly conduct nuclear test explosions while imposing immense financial and health costs on the American people,” they wrote.

In addition, Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) led Reps. Susie Lee (D-Nev.), McAdams, Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), and TJ Cox (D-Calif.) in introducing Sept. 22 the “No Nuclear Testing Without Approval Act,” which would block the president from conducting nuclear tests in Nevada and the rest of the United States without congressional approval. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) had introduced the companion legislation in the Senate in June.