Volume 12, Issue 4, June 16, 2020
The United States has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992 when a bipartisan congressional majority approved legislation mandating a nine-month nuclear test moratorium. The following year, President Bill Clinton extended the moratorium and launched multilateral negotiations on a global test ban. In 1996, the United States was the first to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which verifiably prohibits all nuclear test explosions of any yield.
Today, the CTBT has 184 signatories but has not formally entered into force due to the failure of the United States, China, and six other hold-out states to ratify the pact. Nevertheless, the treaty has established a global taboo against all nuclear testing. North Korea is the only country believed to have conducted nuclear tests in this century.
Now, the Trump administration is weighing whether to conduct a nuclear test explosion for political signaling purposes. According to a May 22 report by The Washington Post, senior national security officials discussed the option of a demonstration nuclear blast at a May 15 interagency meeting. A senior administration official told The Post that a “rapid test” by the United States could prove useful from a negotiating standpoint as the Trump administration seeks an arms control agreement with Russia and China.
Making matters worse, in a party-line vote June 11, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to authorize $10 million to execute a nuclear test if necessary. Such a test could be conducted in a matter of a few months underground at the former Nevada Test Site outside Las Vegas.
In reality, the first U.S. nuclear test blast in 28 years would do nothing to rein in Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals or improve the environment for negotiations. Rather, it would raise tensions and probably trigger an outbreak of nuclear testing by other nuclear actors, leading to an all-out global arms race in which everyone would come out a loser.
On June 4, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced legislation that would restrict funds for fiscal year 2021 and all previous years from being used for resuming nuclear weapons testing. Markey’s bill, named the Preserving Leadership Against Nuclear Explosives Testing (PLANET) Act, was cosponsored by 14 senators, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Reps. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) introduced companion legislation in the House June 8.
As Congress now works on the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021, members should include a provision that prohibits any funding for a U.S. nuclear test.
The following are excerpts from the growing number of statements against a resumption of U.S. nuclear weapons testing, as well as some additional resources. —SHANNON BUGOS, research assistant
Statements Against Resumption of Nuclear Testing
*updated June 17, 2020
“The United States not only has conducted the largest number of nuclear tests by any country, it also has built over the last 25 years an expansive science-based stewardship program to sustain the reliability and safety of the nuclear weapons stockpile without testing. This is to our advantage. A return to testing by nuclear weapons states, and increased risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons capability to others, would negate this advantage and undermine U.S. and global security.”
—Ernest J. Moniz, former Secretary of Energy, and Sam Nunn, former U.S. Senator (D-Ga.), May 27, 2020
“The possibility that the Trump administration may resume nuclear explosive weapons testing in Nevada is as reckless as it is dangerous. We have not tested a device since 1992; we don’t need to do so now … The Administration reportedly believes a test will help compel Russia or China to come to the negotiating table on a new arms control agreement. This is delusional. A resumption of testing is more likely to prompt other countries to resume militarily significant nuclear testing and undermine our nuclear nonproliferation goals.”
—Joseph Biden, former U.S. vice president, May 28, 2020
“... a U.S. nuclear test would most likely have a very different effect: opening the door for tests by other countries to develop more sophisticated nuclear weapons. A smarter policy would maintain the current moratorium on nuclear testing and ratify and seek to bring into force the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.”
—Amb. Steven Pifer, former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs and special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia on the National Security Council, May 28, 2020
“In general, any actions or activities by any country that violate the international norm against nuclear testing, as underpinned by the CTBT, would constitute a grave challenge to the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime, as well as to global peace and security more broadly.”
—Dr. Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, May 28, 2020
“Not only could this kick off a new arms race, but other countries would have far more to gain from nuclear testing than the United States. We do not need to resume nuclear testing to ensure the reliability of our nuclear arsenal. Doing so would be expensive and further strain an already over-taxed Energy Department nuclear enterprise.
“Nuclear testing has also killed or sickened thousands of military personnel who were involved in the detonations, as well as civilians who lived on or downrange from the testing sites. These impacted communities are still dealing with the devastating legacy of nuclear testing decades after the U.S. conducted its last nuclear test. A decision to resume U.S. nuclear testing would dishonor their experiences.”
—Letter to Congress from 24 nuclear arms control, environmental, and peace organizations, May 28, 2020
“No. Hell no. Not now. Not ever. Nevada will not be subjected to nuclear bombing again.”
—Editorial Board, Las Vegas Sun, May 31, 2020
“An American test would likely be answered by Russian and Chinese tests, and perhaps by others. Although the United States, Russia, and China have mature arsenals and don’t need the tests to improve design, other countries like India, Pakistan, and North Korea would see an American test as an excuse to improve their designs to fit on smaller missiles. Worst of all would be the signal that the United States is willing to break treaties and brandish the world’s most destructive weapons for political means.”
—Cheryl Rofer, former chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, May 2020
“Especially in the midst of a global pandemic, a resumption of testing is both unjustified and destabilizing, and opens the door to an expensive arms race. We staunchly oppose resurrecting the era of worldwide nuclear testing, especially in light of the unnecessary risks such actions would pose to the American people. The decision to resume nuclear testing is not one that should be taken lightly.”
—Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation Subcommittee, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), and 23 other members, June 5, 2020
“A return to nuclear testing is not only scientifically and technically unnecessary but also dangerously provocative. It would signal to the world that the U.S. no longer has confidence in the safety, security, and effectiveness of our nuclear weapons. It would needlessly antagonize important allies, cause other countries to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, and prompt adversaries to respond in kind—risking a new nuclear arms race and further undermining the global nonproliferation regime. None of these developments would improve America’s national security or strengthen its position in the world.”
—Letter from U.S. Representative Bill Foster (D-Ill.), U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and a bicameral group of 80 other colleagues urging President Trump not to resume explosive nuclear testing, June 8, 2020
“It is unfathomable that the administration is considering something so short-sighted and dangerous, and that directly contradicts its own 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which this administration often cites as inviolable, makes clear that ‘the United States will not resume nuclear explosive testing unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.’”
—Letter to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and Defense Secretary Mark Esper from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.); Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.); Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces; Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water; and Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, June 8, 2020
“We have seen firsthand how nuclear weapons testing puts Americans at greater risk for cancer and hurts our livelihoods. This administration should not use our lives as a bargaining chip for a last-ditch attempt at a trilateral arms-control deal with unwilling parties.”
—Jennifer Seelig, former Utah House Minority Leader (D), and Ryan Wilcox, former Utah State Representative (R), June 8, 2020
“Such [nuclear] tests would bring no military or strategic benefit to the United States. Instead, they would undermine the foundational global agreement that has curbed the spread of nuclear weapons worldwide for more than 50 years, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”
—Amb. Thomas Graham, former U.S. special representative for arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament, June 10, 2020
Resuming nuclear testing “is not necessary to ensure the continued reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It could also increase threats to U.S. and allied security by giving a green light to other countries, including dangerous proliferators, to conduct nuclear tests of their own…There is no technical reason to resume testing now. The Stockpile Stewardship Program works extraordinarily well in ensuring the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”
—William Courtney, former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia, and the U.S.-Soviet commission to implement the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, and Frank Klotz, former commander of Air Force Global Strike Command and administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, June 10, 2020
“With no stated justification to resume testing, we unequivocally oppose any Administration’s efforts to resume explosive nuclear testing in Nevada. Not only would such an action compromise the health and safety of Nevadans, degrade vital water resources, and harm the surrounding environment, but it would also undermine future stockpile stewardship efforts, undercut our nuclear nonproliferation goals, and further weaken strategic partnerships with our global allies.”
—Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), and Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.), June 12, 2020
“As scientists with expertise on nuclear weapons issues, including many with long involvement in the US nuclear weapons program, we strongly oppose the resumption of explosive testing of US nuclear weapons. There is no technical need for a nuclear test. Indeed, statements attributed to administration officials suggest the motivation is that a nuclear explosive test would provide leverage in future nuclear arms control negotiations with Russia and China. ”
—12 former nuclear weapons scientists in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, June 16, 2020
- “Keep nuclear testing off the table,” by Michael T. Klare and Daryl G. Kimball, The Boston Globe, June 13, 2020
- “A Nuclear Test Would Blow Up in Trump’s Face,” by Sarah Bidgood, Foreign Policy, June 11, 2020
- “Resuming Nuclear Testing a Slap in the Face to Survivors,” by Lilly Adams, Union of Concerned Scientists, May 26, 2020
- “U.S. Claims of Illegal Russian Nuclear Testing: Myths, Realities, and Next Steps,” by Daryl G. Kimball, Arms Control Association, Policy White Paper, Aug. 21, 2019
- U.S. Department of State CTBT Fact Sheets
- Project for the CTBT blog