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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
United States

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.

Congress Should Take the Nuclear Testing Option Off the Table

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Volume 12, Issue 5, July 1, 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 the House Armed Services Committee could vote on an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) designed to prohibit funding for a demonstration nuclear test explosion in fiscal year 2021.

Meanwhile, the Senate could soon consider a similar prohibition as an amendment to the NDAA (such as S.A.2051 filed by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and 16 other senators. The Senate could also consider an amendment (S.A. 2313) filed by Sens. Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), and Chris Coons (D-Del.) that that would mandate reporting requirements and affirmative votes in each chamber, including a supermajority vote in the Senate, if Trump or any future president seeks to resume nuclear testing in response to a foreign nuclear test or in the event of an unforeseen technical need.

Both of these initiatives are important, and they are complementary.

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

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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.

Country Resources:

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Iran’s Illicit Arms Transfers Do Not Justify U.S. Snapback

A new report authored by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres details evidence of Iran’s likely violation of the arms-related and ballistic missile transfer-related provisions of Security Council resolution 2231 (2015). Resolution 2231 endorses and helps implement the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which the United States withdrew from in May 2018, and modifies UN sanctions on Iran. As the Trump Administration bids to strengthen its maximum pressure campaign against Iran, it will likely use the Secretary-General’s report as...

TAKE ACTION: Just Say “No” to Nuclear Testing

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The United States has not conducted a nuclear test explosion since 1992 when a bipartisan congressional majority mandated a test moratorium and talks on a global ban. The 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has established a global taboo against all nuclear testing. North Korea is the only country to have conducted nuclear tests in this century.

Your voice is needed now to call upon Congress to say “no” to renewed U.S. nuclear testing.

Why? The Trump administration is now considering conducting a nuclear test for political signaling purposes, as a ploy in future arms talks with Russia and China.

Worse, the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee authorized $10 million specifically for a nuclear test blast if ordered by President Trump. 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 raise tensions with Russia and China and almost certainly trigger an outbreak of nuclear testing by other counties and spur an all-out global arms race. 

Key Senators and members of the House are pushing back. They have introduced bills to prohibit funding for nuclear testing. Votes will likely be held very soon in the House and the Senate on this vital issue.

Now is the time to call on your elected officials.  Complete your information below to urge your Senators and U.S. Representative to close the door on nuclear testing by prohibiting funding for nuclear testing for any purpose.

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The Trump administration is now considering conducting a nuclear test for political signaling purposes, as a ploy in future arms talks with Russia and China. Worse, the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee authorized $10 million specifically for a nuclear test blast if ordered by President Trump. Key Senators and members of the House are pushing back but they need to hear your support for prohibiting funding for nuclear testing.

Country Resources:

Reaction to White House Nuclear Testing Proposal Strongly Negative

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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

Additional Resources

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The Trump administration is weighing whether to conduct a nuclear test explosion as a negotiating standpoint as it seeks an arms control agreement with Russia and China. Making matters worse, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to authorize $10 million to execute a nuclear test if necessary.

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Keep nuclear testing off the table

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Originally published in The Boston Globe, June 13, 2020.

Our nation and the world face a daunting array of challenges. Surely, this is not the time to ignite a new arms race with Russia and China — let alone to begin testing nuclear weapons again, as senior officials at the White House have been considering.

One of the most consequential responsibilities of the president of the United States is to pursue policies aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear war, curtailing the nuclear arsenals of America’s adversaries, and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. For decades, presidents of both major parties have embraced these momentous responsibilities and helped create a system of treaties and agreements that have reduced the nuclear danger.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is backing out of vital treaties that have helped avert a catastrophic conflagration with Russia, our main nuclear rival, and is stoking nuclear tensions even further.

President Trump claims that he wants to constrain the arms race, which he says is “getting out of control.” However, he has withdrawn from one arms control treaty after another and rebuffed Russia’s offer to extend the sole remaining arms limitation agreement, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Control Treaty (New START), which is due to expire in eight months.

Last month, the president’s new envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, threatened to let New START expire and warned that the United States is prepared to spend Russia and China “into oblivion”in order to “win” a new nuclear arms race if they do not agree to a new nuclear deal on Trump’s (as yet undefined) terms.

Then, on May 22, the Washington Post revealed that senior White House officials have discussed the option of conducting the first US nuclear test explosion in 28 yearsas a way to pressure Russian and Chinese leaders into accepting vague US terms. The proposal was described in the Post as “very much an ongoing conversation” within the administration.

Billingslea announced on Tuesday that he would meet with his Russian counterpart in Vienna on June 22. While it is a positive that they are talking, there is no realistic chance of concluding a new and more ambitious nuclear arms control deal with Russia, let alone China, before START is due to expire. It would be foreign policy malpractice to gamble away that treaty’s important limits on Russia’s nuclear arsenal in a desperate attempt to coerce unilateral concessions from Moscow and Beijing. The common-sense path forward should be to agree with Russia to extend New START by five years, as allowed for in the treaty. That would provide time for talks on further nuclear reductions with Russia and for an agreement to halt the potential growth of China’s much smaller nuclear arsenal.

And most certainly, a demonstration nuclear test should not be on the negotiating table. Whatever Trump and his acolytes might tell themselves, a nuclear test blast by the United States 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. Since a bipartisan majority in Congress halted underground nuclear testing in 1992, the US nuclear weapons labs have devised other technical means to ensure the reliability of US warheads; other nuclear powers would probably seize the opportunity provided by a US nuclear blast to engage in multiple explosive tests of their own, which could help them perfect new and more dangerous types of warheads.

Nuclear testing is a dangerous vestige of a bygone era. Since 1945, at least eight countries have conducted more than 2,000 nuclear test explosions, including 1,030 by the United States alone. About one-fourth of these nuclear tests were detonated in the atmosphere, which killed or sickened thousands of US military personnel who were involved in the detonations, as well as civilians living downwind. The worldwide spread of radioactive isotopes from these tests — among them strontium-90, which accumulated in children’s teeth — provoked widespread protests against nuclear testing and helped create a nearly universal consensus that all such tests should be stopped.

American leadership played a key role in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, in 1996, which prohibits all nuclear tests of any explosive yield anywhere. The United States and 183 other states have signed the treaty, though it has not yet been ratified by several countries, including the United States. Only one country — North Korea — has detonated nuclear tests in this century, and even Kim Jong Un has now declared a testing moratorium.

Unfortunately, President Trump could order a simple demonstration nuclear test explosion underground at the former Nevada Test Site outside Las Vegas in as little as six months.

Congress can and should step in to prevent such recklessness. Republicans and Democrats should join Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Charles Schumer of New York, and others who have proposed a prohibition on the use of taxpayers’ funds to resume nuclear weapons testing. Parallel efforts are being led by Representative Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, and others in the House.

For the sake of our generation and generations to come, it is time to act to avoid a pandemic of dangerous nuclear weapons testing and proliferation.

Read the original article in The Boston Globe.

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Debating US nuclear spending in the age of the coronavirus

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Originally published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 10, 2020.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to exact a terrible human and economic toll on the United States, Americans are adjusting how they view national security. There also appears to be agreement, even within the senior leadership of the Defense Department, that the military budget, which has seen significant growth during the Trump administration, is likely to be pared back in the coming years as federal deficits soar.

So it should be no surprise that the havoc wrought by the virus has also fanned the flames of an ongoing debate about the Trump administration’s aggressive and costly plans to sustain and upgrade the US nuclear arsenal.

But some supporters of the status quo will not countenance any challenge to business as usual. In an April 17 conversation hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Frank Miller, a distinguished former US government official, argued that it is illegitimate and irresponsible to cite the current public health and economic crisis as a rationale to rethink US nuclear weapons spending priorities. A close examination reveals, however, that his reasoning is deeply flawed.

The unsustainable nuclear budget. At the Arms Control Association, where I am the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, we have long argued that the administration’s approach is unnecessary, unsustainable, and unsafe. The financial and opportunity costs have steadily grown and the biggest nuclear weapons modernization bills are just beginning to arrive. Government officials in charge of the nuclear weapons enterprise warn about the “pervasive and overwhelming risk” facing the current nuclear modernization program.

The danger posed by the plans is on full display in the administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget request.

The Defense and Energy Departments are requesting $44.5 billion for next year to sustain and modernize US nuclear delivery systems and warheads and their supporting infrastructure, a larger-than-anticipated increase of about $7.3 billion, or 19 percent, from the fiscal year 2020 level. Meanwhile, the administration is recommending a lower overall national defense budget than Congress provided last year.

The combination of a decreased topline budget but an increased nuclear budget means that other defense programs would have to be cut. Some programs on the chopping block include the Navy’s planned second Virginia class submarine, the Energy Department’s efforts to clean up nuclear waste leftover from US nuclear weapons production during the Cold War, and the Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which supports global efforts to detect and secure dangerous pathogens such as the coronavirus.

And this was all before the coronavirus began its deadly march across the country and before Congress spent several trillion dollars trying to save the US economy from complete collapse.

Although Pentagon officials insist that nuclear weapons should be shielded from possible future defense budget cuts, the pressure on the federal budget imposed by the response to the virus is likely to exacerbate the affordability and execution challenges confronting the administration’s nuclear spending plans. If great power competition with China is the Pentagon’s top priority, is it prudent to sacrifice a Virginia class submarine every year for the next 10 to 15 years to attempt to keep an excessive and overburdened nuclear modernization effort on track? The answer should be no, especially in light of the quantitative and qualitative superiority of the US nuclear arsenal over China’s.

In the view of many, the Trump administration’s proposal to expand spending on nuclear weapons is a sad and dangerous illustration of wildly misplaced federal spending priorities. As it proposed a 19 percent increase for nuclear weapons next year, the White House initially planned to slash the budgets for the Centers for Disease Control by 19 percent and the National Institutes of Health by 7 percent. The Pentagon’s proposal to cut the budget for the Cooperative Threat Reduction program in order to fund weapons modernization amid a global pandemic is shockingly reckless.

“How can we prepare and arm ourselves so completely for wars that may never come,” wrote Tyler Rogoway, editor of The Drive, in March, “but we are so ill-prepared for one that we knew was more likely around the corner than not?”

Inexplicably, the unprecedented economic crisis facing the nation hasn’t stopped some Trump administration officials from raising the prospect of even greater spending on nuclear weapons above and beyond what is already planned. Marshall Billingslea, President Trump’s special envoy for arms control, said recently that if Russia and China don’t agree to US demands for talks on new trilateral arms control to replace the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), Washington could win a new arms race if necessary. “We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said.

More US spending on nuclear weapons won’t force the current Russian and Chinese leadership to capitulate and would be fraught with peril. The administration’s desire to pursue a more ambitious arms control agreement is the right goal, but it can’t be achieved before New START is slated to expire next February. A new quantitative arms race that could follow the collapse of New START would further undermine stability between the United States and Russia, the health of the global nonproliferation regime, and the US military’s emphasis on competition with China.

Our new post-pandemic reality should make it all the more obvious that the current modernization plans need to be reconsidered in a way that eliminates the most excessive and destabilizing elements, saves taxpayer dollars for other pressing national and health security needs, and is in sync with a revitalized and realistic strategy to cap and reduce global nuclear stockpiles.

A debate on nuclear weapons policy. In an article published on the Arms Control Association website in March, Shannon Bugos and I criticized the 2021 budget request for nuclear weapons and made the case for a different approach. The critique apparently struck a nerve with supporters of the Trump plans.

In his remarks for the Mitchell Institute event, Miller alleged that our organization is part of a nefarious disarmament cabal and attempted a point-by-point rebuttal of the purported “body of lies” and “dangerous recommendations” contained in our article. He claimed that our critique “comes from a group of people who have never felt the burden of public responsibility and public office in defense of this nation and our allies.” (In reality, nearly half of the Arms Control Association’s 17-member board of directors has served in government in some capacity, including several board members who have served at the Defense Department.)

Miller published an expanded version of his remarks earlier this month in Real Clear Defense.

But a review of what we actually wrote reveals that Miller either did not read our article or deliberately chose to distort its contents. Below I respond to each of his assertions.

The growing costs. Miller’s claim: “The projected cost of the [nuclear] modernization program as a percentage of the defense budget is not growing.”

Response: The projected cost of nuclear weapons, both in actual dollars and as a percentage of the national defense budget, is clearly growing, and doing so more quickly than anticipated.

The Pentagon request for 2021 of $28.9 billion to sustain and modernize the triad of nuclear delivery systems and supporting command and control infrastructure is a large increase above this year’s appropriated level of $24.8 billion. As we noted, the requested amounts are consistent with the projected spending levels for these programs contained in previous budget submissions.

The request for the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration nuclear weapons program, however, is far larger than anticipated. The submission calls for $15.6 billion, an astonishing increase of $3.1 billion, or 25 percent, above the fiscal 2020 appropriation, and $2.8 billion more than the projection for 2021 contained in the fiscal year 2020 budget request. Over the next five years, the National Nuclear Security Administration is planning to request over $81 billion for weapons activities, a nearly 24 percent increase over what it planned to seek over the same period as of last year.

Miller, echoing arguments often made by Pentagon officials, claims that even at its projected peak in 2029, spending on nuclear weapons will consume no more than 6 to 7 percent of total Pentagon spending. But this is misleading, unless you think a credible deterrent can be maintained without having actual warheads.

The 6 to 7 percent figure doesn’t include spending at the National Nuclear Security Administration. When that is included, nuclear weapons already account for 6 percent of the total 2021 national defense budget request and will rise to 7 percent by 2024. Given the rate at which that agency’s budget is exploding, probable future cost overruns in the delivery system modernization programs, and the likelihood of flat overall defense budgets (at best) for the foreseeable future, it is conceivable that spending on nuclear weapons could approach 10 percent of national defense spending by the late 2020s.

Miller can claim that the growing modernization bill is worth the price. But he can’t claim that the price tag isn’t growing.

A bigger stockpile. Miller’s claim: “You can search the 2018 [Nuclear Posture Review] from cover to cover without finding any policy which supports expanding the US nuclear warhead stockpile.”

Response: It is true that the Trump administration is not currently planning to grow the size of the arsenal. But we never claimed otherwise. Instead, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review contains several proposed initiatives that support preparing the United States to grow the size of the stockpile in the event of a future decision to do so. Examples include: providing “the enduring capability and capacity to produce plutonium pits at a rate of no fewer than 80 pits per year by 2030”; exploring “approaches for rapid [warhead] prototyping”; assessing “the potential for retired warheads and components to augment the future hedge stockpile”; and reducing “the time required to design, develop, and initially produce a warhead, from a decision to enter full-scale development.”

According to Madelyn Creedon, former deputy administrator at the National Nuclear Security Administration during the Obama administration, the Nuclear Posture Review “lays out a long-term plan to prepare the United States to develop, test, and deploy new nuclear weapons and to increase the size of the nuclear stockpile. In short, prepare for a new arms race.”

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s needs. Miller’s claim: “There should be no cause for uncertainty about the crying need for increased funding for [the National Nuclear Security Administration].”

Response: For 2021, the National Nuclear Security Administration has requested a large unplanned increase, totaling $15.6 billion for weapons activities. To many, such an increase was surprising: The agency said only last year that its 2020 budget plan was “fully consistent” with the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review and “affordable and executable.” Under that proposal, the agency did not plan to request more than $15 billion for weapons activities until 2030!

So, what changed? Lisa Gordon Hagerty, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, was asked to explain the rationale for such a large unplanned increase at a Congressional hearing in March, but her attempt at an answer hardly cleared up the situation. Perhaps there is a clearer explanation for why the agency so badly misjudged its funding needs for 2021, but if so the agency has yet to provide it.

Plutonium pit production. Miller’s claim: “The comment that building 80 pits per year is unprecedented just doesn’t even work within their own circles.”

Response: At no point did we claim that the National Nuclear Security Administration’s effort to build at least 80 pits per year is unprecedented. What we actually wrote, citing an Institute for Defense Analyses report published last year, is that there is “no historical precedent” for the agency’s plan to go from the current production level of zero pits per year to 80 pits per year by 2030. The Institute for Defense Analyses report could not be clearer: “No available option can be expected to provide 80 pits per year by 2030.”

The right size for the arsenal. Miller’s claim: “It’s also absurd in the extreme … to argue that the size of the current arsenal is more than is required for deterrence.”

Response: It’s not at all absurd to argue that the size of the current US nuclear arsenal is more than is required for deterrence of adversaries and assurance of allies.

In 2013, the Obama administration determined that deterrence requirements could be met with one-third fewer deployed New START-accountable strategic nuclear forces. Yet Obama did not immediately reduce the size of America’s nuclear force, despite concluding that deterrence could be achieved by even a unilateral reduction.

Miller is of course free to argue that further reductions in the arsenal should only occur bilaterally with Russia (or trilaterally with Russia and China) or that the current security environment is such that further reductions aren’t advisable. But in that case the burden of proof is on him to explain the logic that presumes Moscow and Beijing would not be deterred by 1,000 nuclear warheads deployed on hundreds of delivery systems but are deterred by the 1,550 warheads deployed today.

The burden is also on him to explain why the current modernization plans should be funded next year at the expense of the Navy’s conventional shipbuilding account, defense environmental cleanup, and the Cooperative Threat Reduction program—and likely at the expense of similar such cuts in future years. A Virginia class submarine would seem to be far more relevant to great power competition with China than a one-year increase in funds for an agency that said last year it didn’t need those funds and is unlikely to be able to spend them.

Nuclear war fighting. Miller’s claim: “There is that old canard, the ever-popular bloody flag that US policy is based on nuclear war fighting, not on deterrence.”

Response: In our article and elsewhere we advocate for a nuclear strategy that deemphasizes nuclear war fighting by opposing the Trump administration’s proposal to double the number of low-yield nuclear options in the US nuclear arsenal. Miller and other supporters of expanding the number of such options claim that doing so would strengthen deterrence and raise the nuclear threshold.

But the purported deterrent value of additional low-yield options is premised on the concern that adversaries might think the United States would be self-deterred from a more difficult to use higher-yield response. Indeed, Pentagon officials repeatedly argue that policy makers cannot simply assume that a possible nuclear conflict will inevitably escalate to massive nuclear use. They assert that the United States must plan and prepare to be able to prevail in a limited nuclear conflict.

While we do not advocate for the elimination of low-yield weapons from the US nuclear arsenal, we reject the notion that heightening their role is necessary or stabilizing. Placing greater emphasis on low-yield options risks spawning more planning for their use and belief, including by our adversaries, that such use can be controlled, thereby risking a lowering of the threshold for nuclear use.

The future nuclear submarine fleet. Miller’s claim: “The idea that the size of the Columbia class … should be cut, betrays either complete dishonesty, and there’s a lot of that in their pitch, or total ignorance of industrial reality. Cutting boats 11 and 12 and possibly 13 and 14 won’t solve the fiscal problem the [Arms Control Association] has raised with regard to coronavirus.”

Response: At no point have we ever claimed that eliminating two to four submarines from the planned Columbia class purchase would solve the fiscal challenges facing the Pentagon. In fact, we clearly stated in our article that “pressure on the defense budget cannot be relieved solely by reducing nuclear weapons spending.”

What we argue is that changes to the nuclear replacement effort, including the Columbia class program, could make the effort easier to execute and ease some of the hard choices facing the overall defense enterprise, choices that are likely to get even harder amid constrained defense budgets. According to the Congressional Budget Office, eliminating two to four boats at the back end of the planned 12-boat Columbia class purchase would save during the 2030s between $17 and $36 billion in fiscal year 2017 dollars. Buying two additional boats as suggested by Miller would cost an additional $16 billion.

Land-based forces. Miller’s claim: “The idea of extending the Minuteman [III] force has been studied and studied and studied. You just can’t do this safely.”

Response: We disagree that it is not possible to further extend the life of the Minuteman III, as explained in detail in an article in War on the Rocks. A 2014 Air Force study and a 2014 RAND Corporation study both concluded that extending the life of the Minuteman III would be possible. The latter suggested that delaying the development of a new missile by 20 years could save nearly $40 billion dollars through the mid-2030s.

Air-launched cruise missiles. Miller’s claim: “The absurd notion … that nuclear tipped cruise missiles are uniquely destabilizing is a notion unique to American disarmers.… Abandoning the [Long Range Stand Off weapon] will also condemn the B-21 to fly directly into advanced enemy defenses in the decades to come.”

Response: We also disagree with Miller about the case for building a new fleet of nuclear air-launched cruise missiles via the Long Range Stand Off program.

Concerns about the escalation risks associated with weapons systems that have both conventional and nuclear variants is hardly a concern unique to American disarmers. As Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, former commander of US European Command, warned in 2017: “One of the things that you see that is disturbing is the fact that [the Russians] are using similar weapon systems that can either be conventional or nuclear, which then makes it difficult for us to clearly understand what they have employed.”

Miller worries that attempting to drop a nuclear gravity bomb (the B61-12) over a heavily defended target is too risky and might not succeed. But if the Air Force believes the stealth capabilities of the B-21 (which is still under development) could be compromised soon after it is deployed, then it is reasonable to question the service’s strategy for buying the bomber and retaining nuclear gravity bombs in the first place. For its part, US Strategic Command does not appear concerned about the long-term survivability of the B-21. As Gen. Hyten told Congress in July 2017, “It’s not the survivability of the bombers, it’s the ability of the bombers to access targets.” By this Hyten meant that while bombers armed with nuclear gravity bombs can only attack one target at a time, the Long Range Stand Off weapon provides each bomber the ability to attack multiple targets at one time.

It is not surprising that military planners would want many different ways of attacking a target. But the weapons associated with the other two legs of the nuclear triad–the sea- and land-based forces–can also penetrate air defenses and strike targets anywhere on the planet with high confidence.

New warheads. Miller’s claim: “Calling for a halt to upgraded US ballistic missile warheads and abandoning the ability to build new nuclear pits reveals a gross ignorance.”

Response: We did not call for the United States to abandon this ability. On the contrary, we suggested that the National Nuclear Security Administration aim for a less ambitious pit production capacity of 30 to 50 pits per year by 2035. So long as the United States remains a nuclear-armed state, it needs and should have the ability to produce plutonium cores for nuclear warhead refurbishment. But the current goal of producing 80 pits per year by 2030 is almost certainly unachievable. And it is unnecessary. As American University’s Sharon Weiner has noted, “assessing the underlying assumptions makes clear there are credible alternatives to the scale and planned start date for pit production.”

The need for increased pit production could be reduced by pursuing less technically ambitious warhead life extension programs. For example, a near-term driver of establishing a production capacity of 80 pits annually is to support the replacement of the W78 warhead with the new W87-1. But there are alternatives that would not require a new pit for the W87-1, or at least not as many new pits as currently planned. These alternatives include a smaller intercontinental ballistic missile force, a less ambitious upgrade for the W78, or storing or retiring the W78 and relying on just one warhead for the land-based missile force.

In addition, there is no need to accelerate the development of a newly-designed submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, known as the W93, as proposed in the fiscal 2021 budget request. The existing W76-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead just completed a major life extension program that prolonged its service life until at least 2040. The existing W88 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, which is the youngest warhead in the stockpile, is undergoing a significant upgrade and is not expected to require further refurbishment until at least the late 2030s. It is also highly unlikely that the National Nuclear Security Administration will be able to support three major submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead modernization programs in the 2030s.

Modernization as leverage. Miller’s claim: “Finally, it must be noted that the disarmament community’s call to reduce the US nuclear modernization program paradoxically jeopardizes the achievement of one of the community’s highest priority goals: achieving a new arms control treaty with Russia and potentially also with China.”

Response: The notion that changes to the modernization program would undermine America’s ability to bring Russia and China to the negotiating table is unconvincing. First, even if the modernization program were an effective bargaining chip, the chip can’t be cashed in anytime soon. The program won’t produce any new delivery systems until the late 2020s at the earliest. Second, there is little evidence to suggest that the Obama administration’s support for an extensive modernization program provided the administration with leverage during its second term to convince Moscow to join talks on nuclear reductions below New START. Third, Moscow has identified constraints on US non-nuclear weapons, such as missile defense and advanced conventional strike capabilities, as priority conditions for further Russian nuclear cuts. Fourth, the United States has long had a superior nuclear arsenal to China, but China has refused to participate in arms control.

In a democracy, national defense and nuclear policy plans, options, and trade-offs warrant scrutiny. We welcome serious debate; not distortions about our analysis and recommendations.


Read the original article in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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