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Testing Fate: The Implications of Resumed Nuclear Weapons Testing


Image Courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office, © 1953

From 1945 to 1992, the United States conducted 1,032 nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, under the ocean and below ground. These tests took their toll on the environment and communities downwind from test sites, with certain radioactive materials, such as Strontium-90, still measurable in our bodies.

In the quarter century since the last explosive nuclear test, cold war realities like “duck and cover” have faded from the public consciousness. To today’s young professionals, they seem quaint icons of a bygone era. However, while there is no technical requirement for a U.S. nuclear test, this 20th century pursuit is getting new consideration in the current administration. We would be well advised to examine the geopolitical context and the risks that would accompany any U.S. return to testing.

This past May, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) embarked on another review cycle to assess its status and implementation. During these negotiations in Vienna, the vast majority of states expressed strong support for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The verification regime created by the CTBT is one of the strongest in the world, involving over 321 International Monitoring Stations (IMS) and 16 laboratories that continually search for signs of nuclear testing. This sophisticated system of sensors has a variety of applications outside of the nuclear realm, ranging from tracking whale migration in the Indian Ocean to detecting asteroid impacts.

The United States signed the CTBT in 1996, but Congress has yet to ratify the treaty. Despite signing the CTBT, there is a small, yet growing, number of nuclear weapons aficionados in the United States calling for the resumption of a nuclear weapons test readiness posture and even the commencement of explosive testing itself. Testing nuclear weapons, and even allocating substantial money to test readiness, would undercut United States and international security.

North Korea remains the only country to have tested a nuclear weapon since 1998. The international community has strongly condemned North Korean testing as a violation of the testing taboo. If the United States resumes testing, we will lose a significant amount of international political leverage against the regime in Pyongyang.

There are other reasons why United States resumption of nuclear weapons testing would be a dangerous geopolitical move. Testing by the United States would almost certainly light an international fuse, triggering other states with nuclear weapons to resume testing.  Russia is making substantial infrastructure investments at their old Novaya Zemlya testing facility, and could be expected to detonate a test soon after the United States does. China would likely follow. Additionally, India and Pakistan have collectively completed five nuclear weapons tests and would see new opportunities in renewed global testing. Of all the nuclear states, India and Pakistan have the most scientific knowledge to gain from a resumption of testing. A recommencement of nuclear testing would result in widespread environmental damage and a more dangerous, less politically stable world.

Arguments for renewed nuclear weapons testing by certain nuclear weapons experts, such as former Sandia National Lab President C. Paul Robinson, are appearing because the United States is planning to spend one trillion dollars modernizing every aspect of its nuclear arsenal.

This costly modernization project is aimed at enhancing nuclear weapons capabilities. For example, the B61-12 gravity bomb received a new guided tail kit, making the bomb more accurate. The W76-1/Mk4A warheads on the Trident II Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile received new arming, fuzing and firing mechanisms, dubbed “super fuzes”, significantly increasing their ability to destroy hardened targets. The Long Range Standoff Air Launched Cruise Missile is slated to receive new stealth capabilities.

Wholly new concepts are being considered, including warheads with launch “interoperability” from multiple platforms. The farther away the stockpile moves from pedigreed (certified) weapons into uncharted novelty designs, the louder the voices to resume explosive nuclear weapons testing will become. Instead, if a particular design change would introduce a significant uncertainty about its explosive reliability, that should be a “stop” sign, not a “blow it up to see what happens” signal.

Testing is unnecessary for the prudent maintenance of the modern United States nuclear arsenal. The existing Stockpile Stewardship program uses supercomputers that model nuclear explosions based off of the data collected from our 1,032 previous nuclear weapons tests. While our stockpile does not necessitate nuclear weapons testing, a resumption of testing would galvanize other states’ nuclear weapons programs.

If testing does recommence, the Nevada Test Site, where the majority of nuclear weapons detonated on United States soil occurred, is the facility most likely to be used. Nevada citizens should stand against nuclear weapons testing in their communities. Nuclear weapons testing should become a political third rail. Testing in Nevada would cause ecological devastation and carry an enormous economic cost. With Las Vegas just 80 miles away from the Nevada Test Site, tourism to Nevada would certainly decline.

Resuming nuclear weapons testing is politically untenable, internationally destabilizing, and environmentally catastrophic. Modernization of nuclear weapons by introducing novel design elements is provocative and is already contributing to an arms race. Testing will accelerate the nuclear dangers without commensurate benefit to the United States and will make our nation and the world less safe.

Joseph Rodgers is a Master’s Candidate in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS). Rodgers also serves as a Nuclear Policy Analyst at Tri-Valley CAREs, based in Livermore, California and as a Research Assistant at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at MIIS. 

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