Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Daryl Kimball

Nuclear Testing, Never Again

News Date: 
July 1, 2020 -04:00

Nuclear Testing, Never Again

July/August 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

Seventy-five years ago, on July 16, the United States detonated the world’s first nuclear weapons test explosion in the New Mexican desert. Just three weeks later, U.S. Air Force B-29 bombers executed surprise atomic bomb attacks on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 214,000 people by the end of 1945, and injuring untold thousands more who died in the years afterward.

“Trinity,” the first nuclear test explosion, July 16, 1945. (Photo: Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo)Since then, the world has suffered from a costly and deadly nuclear arms race fueled by more than 2,056 nuclear test explosions by at least eight states, more than half of which (1,030) were conducted by the United States.

But now, as a result of years of sustained citizen pressure and campaigning, congressional leadership, and scientific and diplomatic breakthroughs, nuclear testing is taboo.

The United States has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992, when a bipartisan congressional majority mandated a nine-month testing moratorium. 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 and almost universal support. But it has not formally entered into force due to the failure of the United States,
China, and six other holdout states to ratify the pact.

As a result, the door to nuclear testing remains ajar, and now some White House officials and members of the Senate’s Dr. Strangelove Caucus are threatening to blow it wide open.

According to a May 22 article in The Washington Post, senior national security officials discussed the option of a demonstration nuclear blast at a May 15 interagency meeting. A senior official told the Post that a “rapid test” by the United States could prove useful from a negotiating standpoint as the Trump administration tries to pressure Russia and China to engage in talks on a new arms control agreement.

Making matters worse, in a party-line vote last month, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to authorize $10 million specifically for a nuclear test if so ordered by President Donald Trump. Such a test could be conducted underground in just a few months at the former Nevada Test Site outside Las Vegas.

The idea of such a demonstration nuclear test blast is beyond reckless. In reality, the first U.S. nuclear test explosion 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.

Other nuclear-armed countries, such as Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea would have far more to gain from nuclear testing than would the United States. Over the course of the past 25 years, the U.S. nuclear weapons labs have spent billions to maintain the U.S. arsenal without nuclear explosive testing. Other nuclear powers would undoubtedly seize the opportunity provided by a U.S. nuclear blast to engage in multiple explosive tests of their own, which could help them perfect new and more dangerous types of warheads.

Moves by the United States to prepare for or to resume nuclear testing would shred its already tattered reputation as a leader on nonproliferation and make a mockery of the State Department’s initiative for a multilateral dialogue to create a better environment for progress on nuclear disarmament. The United States would join North Korea, which is the only country to have conducted nuclear tests in this century, as a nuclear rogue state.

As Dr. Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, said on May 28, “[A]ctions 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 nonproliferation and disarmament regime, as well as to global peace and security more broadly.”

Talk of renewing U.S. nuclear testing would dishonor the victims of the nuclear age. These include the millions of people who have died and suffered from illnesses directly related to the radioactive fallout from tests conducted in the United States, the islands of the Pacific, Australia, China, North Africa, Russia, and Kazakhstan, where the Soviet Union conducted 468 of its 715 nuclear tests. Tragically, the downwinders affected by the first U.S. nuclear test, code-named “Trinity,” are still not even included in the U.S. Radiation Effects Compensation Act program, which is due to expire in 2022.

Congress must step in and slam the door shut on the idea of resuming nuclear testing, especially if its purpose is to threaten other countries. As Congress finalizes the annual defense authorization and energy appropriations bills, it can and must enact a prohibition on the use of funds for nuclear testing and enact safeguards that require affirmative House and Senate votes on any proposal for testing in the future. Eventually, the Senate can and must also reconsider and ratify the CTBT itself. As a signatory, the United States is legally bound to comply with CTBT’s prohibition on testing, but has denied itself the benefits that will come with ratification and entry into force of the treaty.

Nuclear weapons test explosions are a dangerous vestige of a bygone era. We must not go back.

Seventy-five years ago, on July 16, the United States detonated the world’s first nuclear weapons test explosion in the New Mexican desert. Just three weeks later, U.S. Air Force B-29 bombers executed surprise atomic bomb attacks on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 214,000 people by the end of 1945, and injuring untold thousands more who died in the years afterward.

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombings and the Nuclear Danger Today

July/August 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

The U.S. atomic bomb attack on the people of Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, and the second attack on the city of Nagasaki at 11:02 a.m. on August 9 killed and wounded hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting men, women, and children in a horrible blast of fire and radiation, followed by deadly fallout. In years that followed, those who survived—the hibakusha—suffered from the trauma of the experience and from the long-term effects of their exposure to radiation from the weapons.

Historians now largely agree that the United States need not have dropped bombs to avoid an invasion of Japan and bring an end to World War II. President Harry Truman and his advisers were aware of the alternatives, but Truman chose to authorize the use of the atomic bombs in part to further the U.S. government’s postwar geostrategic aims.1

The bombings helped to launch the dangerous, decades-long U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race; and they ignited a debate about the dangers of nuclear weapons, their role in foreign and military policy, their regulation and control, and the morality and legality of their possession and use that continues to this day.

Although nuclear weapons have not been used in a military attack since 1945, they have left a trail of devastation, including cancer from atmospheric nuclear test fallout, toxic waste and environmental contamination, and workers and residents exposed to radiation and hazardous chemicals from nuclear weapons production plants, uranium mines, and research labs.2 All too often, indigenous and disempowered communities have found themselves downwind and downstream.

Beginning with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when U.S. authorities sought to censor information about nuclear weapons, the nuclear weapons establishments have tried to hide and stifle debate about the health and environmental effects of nuclear war and nuclear weapons development, testing, and production.

In 1956, however, the Japanese survivors of the atomic bombings came together and pledged to work to “save humanity from its crisis through the lessons learned from our experiences” and issued their first formal appeal to the world that “there should never be another [h]ibakusha.”

The voices, testimony, and outreach of the hibakusha have been central to the decades-long struggle to put in place meaningful, verifiable, legally binding restraints on nuclear weapons; to realize a global treaty prohibiting their possession and use; and to advance the steps necessary to achieve the peace and security of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Through the decades, persistent citizen pressure and hard-nosed disarmament and nonproliferation diplomacy have produced agreements and treaties that have successfully curbed the spread of nuclear weapons, slowed the arms race, and reduced the danger of nuclear war. These initiatives slashed the staggering size of the Cold War-era U.S. and Russian arsenals, prohibited nuclear test explosions, and strengthened the taboo against nuclear weapons possession and use.

Yet, far too many of these weapons still exist. Combined, the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals total some 12,170 nuclear weapons, more than 90 percent of the global total, which is estimated to be 13,400.3 In addition to the United States and Russia, there are now seven more nuclear-armed nations, with smaller but still very deadly arsenals: the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.

In addition, many of the dangerous policies developed over the years to justify the possession and potential use of nuclear weapons persist. For instance, the United States, Russia, France, and the UK maintain significant numbers of their nuclear weapons on prompt-launch status, ready to retaliate in response to a nuclear attack. The United States and Russia also cling to the option to use nuclear weapons first and against significant non-nuclear threats.

Making matters worse, the dialogue on disarmament has stalled. Tensions between many of the world’s nuclear-armed states are rising, and the risk of nuclear use is growing. The Trump administration has severely undermined U.S. credibility and capability to provide effective global leadership on nonproliferation and disarmament.

The world’s nine nuclear actors are squandering tens of billions of dollars each year to maintain and upgrade nuclear arsenals, monies that could be redirected to address real human needs. The United States and Russia have discarded or disrespected key agreements that have kept their nuclear competition in check, and other agreements are in jeopardy. Other nuclear-armed states, for the most part, still remain outside the nuclear risk reduction and disarmament enterprise. We are once again on the verge of a new, global nuclear arms race.

Our nuclear anxieties persist, and humanity’s efforts to contain and eliminate the nuclear weapons danger continue.

The historic 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which has won the support of the vast majority of the world’s non-nuclear states, is a step forward, but the current environment necessitates even bolder action from civil society and governments everywhere. We must reduce nuclear risks, and we must freeze, reverse, and ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons.

The survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings bear witness to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. As the authors of a new 2020 appeal from a consortium of hibakusha leaders and organizations write, “The average age of the [h]ibakusha now exceeds 80. It is our strong desire to achieve a nuclear weapon-free world in our lifetime, so that succeeding generations of people will not see hell on earth ever again.”

Arms Control Today presents the following annotated photo essay to honor their call to action.


1. J. Samuel Walker, “The Decision to Use the Bomb: A Historiographical Update,” in Hiroshima in History and Memory, ed. Michael J. Hogan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

2. Arjun Makhijani, “A Readiness to Harm: The Health Effects of Nuclear Weapons Complexes,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2005. See Arjun Makhijani, Howard Hu, and Katherine Yih, eds., Nuclear Wastelands: A Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and Its Health and Environmental Effects (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).

3. Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” Federation of American Scientists, April 2020, https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/.


The cloud generated by “Little Boy,” the uranium-based atomic bomb dropped by the United States on Hiroshima, rises above the city with a wartime population of approximately 320,000 on the morning of August 6, 1945. The blast packed a destructive force equivalent to about 15 kilotons of TNT. In minutes, approximately half of the city vanished. (Photo: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum)




Three days later, the city of Nagasaki burns following the decision by U.S. leaders to drop “Fat Man,” a plutonium-based bomb with an explosive yield estimated at 21 kilotons, on the city of approximately 260,000 at the time of the attack. (Photo: UN/Nagasaki International Cultural Hall)



The Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall stands alone in the rubble. The explosion produced a supersonic shock wave followed by extreme winds that remained above hurricane force more than three kilometers from the hypocenter. A secondary and equally devastating reverse wind ensued, flattening and severely damaging homes and buildings several kilometers further away. Only remnants of a few reinforced structures remained.  (Photo: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum)



A burned body in the ruins 500 meters from the hypocenter; and the pattern of a woman’s kimono burned into her skin. The intense heat rays of the Hiroshima bomb reached several million degrees Celsius at the hypocenter and incinerated everything within approximately two kilometers. The heat scorched flesh and ignited trees and other flammable materials as far as 3.5 kilometers from ground zero. Flash burns from the primary heatwave caused most of the deaths at Hiroshima. By the end of 1945, an estimated 140,000 were killed by the blast, heat, and radiation effects of the nuclear attack. (Photo: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum)





The city of Hiroshima on fire on August 6, as seen from four kilometers away. A firestorm ravaged the city of Hiroshima for hours after the explosion, peaking around midday. Firestorms leveled neighborhoods where the blast had inflicted only partial damage and killed victims trapped under fallen debris. Within 20 minutes, the explosion also produced black rain laden with radioactive soot and dust that contaminated areas as far away as 29 kilometers from ground zero. (Photo: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum)




The ruins of Nagasaki on August 10, 1945, at about 700 meters from the hypocenter. The nuclear attack on Nagasaki killed an estimated 74,000 by the end of 1945 and injured approximately another 75,000. The attack occurred two days earlier than planned, 10 hours after the Soviets entered the war against Japan, and as Japanese leaders were contemplating surrender.  (Photo: UN/Yosuke Yamahata)




The remains of a religious temple in Nagasaki on September 24, 1945, six weeks after the bombing. Many of those who survived the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks would die in radiation-induced illnesses years later. The number of survivors contracting leukemia increased noticeably five to six years after the bombing. Ten years after the bombing, the survivors began contracting thyroid, breast, lung, and other cancers at higher than normal rates. These hibakusha and their descendants helped form the nucleus of the Japanese and global nuclear disarmament movement. (Photo: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)





Seventy-five years on, the effects of the bombings haunt the survivors and inform the global debate about nuclear weapons and the ongoing pursuit of nuclear disarmament.

U.S. Aims to Expand Drone Sales

July/August 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

The Trump administration intends to unilaterally reinterpret how the United States will participate in the 35-nation Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in order to allow U.S. companies to export more drones, presumably to states that had sought them but been denied access, according to news reports.

A U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone aircraft taxis at a 2016 airshow. The Trump administration is seeking to reinterpret export restrictions to enable more sales of such weapons systems. (Photo: Dennis Henry/U.S. Air Force)The policy change could open up sales of U.S. remotely piloted aircraft, also known as drones, to countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia that have been forbidden from buying them under the MTCR guidelines, Reuters reported on June 12. To date, U.S. defense manufacturers have only been allowed to sell large drones to Australia, France, and the United Kingdom.

The MTCR requires that exports of most missile systems, including cruise missiles and unmanned aircraft that have a range of at least 300 kilometers and the ability to carry a payload of at least 500 kilograms, are subject to a “strong presumption of denial.”

The Obama administration policy for the export of military unmanned aerial systems, which was finalized in 2015, explicitly sought to reinforce U.S. obligations under the MTCR.

That policy also requires that all potential sales be considered on a case-by-case basis and “puts in place stringent conditions” on potential drone sales. Recipient countries also may be required to agree to end-use assurances as a condition of sale or transfer or more specific end-use monitoring, as well as specific “principles for proper use” included as a condition of the transfer.

The revised U.S. policy will reportedly reinterpret how the MTCR applies to drones that travel at speeds under 800 kilometers per hour, such as the Predator and Reaper drones, which are made by General Atomics, and the Global Hawk, which is made by Northrop Grumman. Under the proposed U.S. reinterpretation, Reuters reported, the United States will treat these drones as if they belong in a lower category that falls outside MTCR jurisdiction. Whether the new policy alters other elements of current policy is not yet clear.

U.S. export oversight agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security, Commerce, Energy, and Justice, agreed to the change in May, Reuters reported, and the first State Department approval of new drones sales could come this summer. The administration has already notified Northrop Grumman and General Atomics, which are the largest U.S. drone manufacturers.

The push to relax U.S. arms export standards, including drone sales, has been underway for nearly a decade as sales to U.S. defense and intelligence agencies has flattened out and overseas interest in advanced drone surveillance and attack drones has grown. Since 2017, the defense industry and some members of Congress have launched a more intensive effort to encourage the Trump administration to revise U.S. policy to allow manufacturers to sidestep MTCR restrictions.

Defense industry lobbyists and spokespersons have argued that, without changes to the existing U.S. policy for drone exports, the United States will fall behind in the fast-growing, multibillion-dollar global drone market. They fear that some states will turn to other suppliers, including China, to acquire drone capabilities for their military and intelligence agencies.

Critics in the U.S. government, Congress, and the arms control and human rights communities have argued that relaxing rules for the export of advanced remotely piloted aircraft, particularly those capable of carrying weapons, could result in sales to governments that have abused human rights, flouted international humanitarian law, or have been involved in proxy wars outside their borders.

In addition, they point out that if the United States seeks to create loopholes in the MTCR in order to expand its share of the global market, it will likely undermine efforts to ensure compliance with MTCR guidelines by other missile- and drone-producing states.

The Trump administration hopes to expand sales by reinterpreting the Missile Technology Control Regime.

Congress Should Take the Nuclear Testing Option Off the Table



Volume 12, Issue 5, July 1, 2020
Updated July 20, 2020

Senior White House officials have reportedly discussed a demonstration nuclear test explosion to try to coerce Russia and China to come to the arms control negotiating table.

On May 22, The Washington Post cited a senior administration official as saying that a nuclear test could strengthen the U.S. negotiating leverage on a possible trilateral arms control deal with Russia and China. The official said the proposal is “very much an ongoing conversation.”

The underground nuclear testing site at Frenchman Flats, Nevada, USA. (Photo: Karen Kasmauski/Science Faction/Corbis)Even if President Donald Trump does not order such a test, the fact that it was even discussed at all merits prompt Congressional action to ensure it is no longer under consideration and to put in place checks and balances on any future proposal to do so.

Making matters worse, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) won approval in a party-line committee vote for his amendment to add $10 million to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021 for a nuclear test explosion.

As Vice President Joe Biden said May 28, resuming nuclear 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.”

This week, July 20, the House will consider an amendment (#29) to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) introduced by Reps. McAdams (D-UT), Gabbard (D-HI), Titus (D-NV), McGovern (D-MA), Horsford (D-NV), and Susie Lee (D-NV) that is designed to prohibit funding for a demonstration nuclear test explosion in fiscal year 2021.

Members of Congress need to consider the following facts as they weigh-in on this critical issue:

  • Resuming nuclear testing would be nuclear nonproliferation malpractice. There is no chance a demonstration nuclear test explosion would compel Russia or China to make unilateral concessions at the negotiating table. Instead, it would harden their positions, undermine the global nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and transform the United States from a nonproliferation leader to a nonproliferation rogue state.
  • A resumption of U.S. nuclear testing, for any reason, would increase incentives for other nuclear-armed states to conduct their own tests. The nuclear weapons programs of countries, including China, India, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia would have far more to gain from nuclear explosive testing than the United States, which has conducted more nuclear tests (1,030) than all other states combined.
  • The United States does not need nuclear test explosions to ensure the reliability of its nuclear arsenal. For more than a quarter-century, the Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship Program has worked extraordinarily well in ensuring the reliability of the existing nuclear warhead types in the U.S. arsenal. The overwhelming majority of the past U.S. nuclear test explosions were for “weapons development” and “weapons effects” purposes. There is simply no technical reason to resume testing now, nor in the foreseeable future.

    (Source: Stephen Herzog, Benoît Pelopidas, Jonathon Baron, Fabrício Fialho, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, June 23, 2020.)
  • Public opinion polling continues to show that overwhelming majorities oppose the resumption of nuclear testing. A recent public opinion survey conducted between Aug. and Nov. 2019 shows that 71.9 percent of all Americans would oppose a nuclear test if conducted today. Since the 1990s, public opinion polling has consistently shown that Americans of all political stripes approve of the United States continuing to abide by its moratorium on nuclear testing by wide margins.
  • Over the years, nuclear testing has killed or sickened thousands of military personnel who were involved in the detonations, as well the people who lived downrange from U.S. test sites, including tens of thousands in the continental United States. These impacted communities are still dealing with the devastating legacy of nuclear testing decades after the U.S. conducted its last nuclear test in 1992. The responsible step for Congress would be to extend and expand the Radiation Effects Compensation Act (RECA) rather than to endorse talk of resuming U.S. nuclear testing, which would dishonor the experiences of downwinders and atomic veterans.
  • A resumption of U.S. testing would violate the global taboo against nuclear testing established by the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. As one of the 184 signatories of the CTBT, the United States has a legal obligation not to take actions that violate the object and purpose of the treaty, which is to prohibit nuclear test explosions, no matter what the yield. Renewed testing by the U.S. would undermine global support for operating and maintaining the treaty’s International Monitoring System, which the United States itself depends upon to help monitor other states’ compliance with the nuclear test ban.
  • Safeguards should be put in place to ensure that no president may resume U.S. nuclear testing for any purpose, without a clear reason, adequate debate, or Congressional approval. Once ordered by the president, a “rapid” nuclear test explosion (without significant instrumentation) could be conducted in as little as six months, if not sooner, underground at the former Nevada Test Site, potentially with little or no Congressional input or public debate.

To ensure that the White House does not seek to side-step the role of Congress to review and authorize any request to conduct a nuclear test just months before the presidential election, Congress must enact legislation to require detailed reporting by the president on any proposal to resume testing and requires an affirmative vote by more than a simple majority of Congress.

In response to a question from David Sanger of The New York Times, Marshall Billingslea, the special presidential envoy for arms control, said June 24: “[W]e maintain and will maintain the ability to conduct nuclear tests if we see any reason to do so, whatever that reason may be. But that said, I am unaware of any particular reason to test at this stage. I won’t shut the door on it because why would we?”

There is no technical or geopolitical reason for the United States to resume testing.

If senior White House officials continue to insist that the president will not rule out the option of conducting a nuclear test explosion, it is vitally important that Congress step in to ensure that nuclear weapons testing is not an option the president may exercise unilaterally, now or in the future.—DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director


If the White House will not rule out the option of conducting new nuclear tests, Congress should step in to ensure that such testing is not an option the president may exercise unilaterally, now or in the future.

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