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Daryl Kimball

Keep nuclear testing off the table


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 However, he has withdrawn from one arms control treaty after another and rebuffed Russia’s offer to extend the sole remaining arms limitation agreement, the 2010 New Strategic Arms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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Keep nuclear testing off the table

News Source / Outlet: 
Boston Globe, The
News Date: 
June 13, 2020 -04:00

Begin With New START, Not a New Arms Race

June 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

Three and a half years since taking office, the Trump administration has failed to develop, let alone pursue, a coherent nuclear arms control strategy. The administration’s official nuclear policy document, the “2018 Nuclear Posture Review,” barely discusses arms control as a risk reduction tool. It passively states that “the United States will remain receptive to future arms control negotiations if conditions permit.”

A Trident II D-5 intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from the water after being launched from the submerged nuclear-powered strategic missile submarine USS Tennessee (SSBN-734). (Photo: The U.S. National Archives)But President Donald Trump says he would like to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin “to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control.” Since April 2018, Trump and his advisers have talked about somehow involving China in nuclear arms control yet they have failed to explain how to do so.

Meanwhile, Trump has rebuffed Russia’s offer to extend the only remaining nuclear arms control treaty, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Control Treaty (New START), by five years. This can be accomplished through an executive agreement that must be concluded before the treaty expires Feb. 5, 2021.

Having wasted valuable time, team Trump is now threatening to allow New START to expire and launch a new arms race unless Russia, as well as China, agree to a new and more ambitious arms control deal involving all types of nuclear weapons, strategic and nonstrategic. The Washington Post reported May 22 that senior administration officials even discussed the option of a demonstration nuclear test explosion as a way to pressure the Russian and Chinese leaders to accept the U.S. terms. This would not advance arms control; it would be an invitation for other nuclear-actors to follow suit; and it would blow apart the nonproliferation regime.

The president’s new “arms control” envoy, Marshall Billingslea, told The Washington Times on May 7 that before there is talk about extension of New START, Russia must “bring the Chinese to the negotiating table.” In remarks on May 21, Billingslea said that “any potential extension of our existing obligations must be tied to progress towards a new era of arms control.”

Serious pursuit of deep cuts in all types of nuclear weapons in the bloated U.S. and Russian arsenals and engaging other nuclear-armed states in disarmament talks are crucial. But there is no possibility of concluding a new and complex nuclear deal before New START expires, and discarding New START without a replacement agreement would be foreign policy malpractice.

Negotiations to account for, reduce, and eliminate U.S. and Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons are overdue, but they will not be easy. Russian officials say they are prepared to talk about these weapons, but only if U.S. leaders are prepared to address Russian concerns, including U.S. missile defenses—an issue U.S. officials, including Billingslea, say is non-negotiable.

Leaders in Beijing have repeatedly said they are not interested in an arms control deal as long as Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals remain orders of magnitude larger than China’s. Russian officials say they are open to talks with China, but it is up to Washington to bring Beijing to the table, and they want France and the United Kingdom involved in any such talks.

Unfortunately, the administration’s entire approach seems to be based on an exaggerated and naive belief that tough talk and threats will somehow coerce Russia and China to make major unilateral concessions. In remarks broadcast on May 21, Billingslea said the United States would not hesitate to engage in a costly nuclear arms race if China and Russia do not agree to U.S. terms. “We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said.

Even the Trump administration’s former undersecretary for arms control and nonproliferation, Andrea Thompson, is skeptical about the administration’s tactics. “China is not going to come to the table before February of next year,” Thompson told Newsweek on May 14. “There's no incentive for them to come to the table.”

U.S. allies and U.S. military and intelligence officials greatly value the New START limits and its inspection capabilities, which provide predictability and transparency. As Adm. Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on April 29, “Put me down in the column of extension, and the reason for that is the clock is running. Certainly, in my experience, getting to the right specifics in a very complex treaty takes a long time.”

The administration’s unserious approach on New START—a pattern of behavior that led to its decisions to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Iran nuclear deal—suggests it may simply be seeking a pretext for exiting yet another valuable risk reduction agreement without a plan B.

If Trump genuinely wants to constrain and reduce the nuclear capabilities of major adversaries, the first and best step is to promptly agree to extend New START by five years. This would create the time and the right environment for follow-on disarmament talks with Russia and serious give-and-take discussions with China on risk reduction options, including a possible freeze of the size of China’s arsenal and joint stockpile declarations.

Unless the White House shifts course and soon, the United States may lose the benefits of New START, and Trump will have opened the door to a more dangerous and costly phase of the global nuclear arms race, which everyone stands to lose.


Three and a half years since taking office, the Trump administration has failed to develop, let alone pursue, a coherent nuclear arms control strategy. The administration’s official nuclear policy document, the “2018 Nuclear Posture Review,” barely discusses arms control as a risk reduction tool.

Video Short: The United States and Nuclear Testing



I am Daryl Kimball. I am executive director of the Arms Control Association.

Is the United States considering resuming nuclear weapons tests?

Yes, some very senior White House officials have actually proposed resuming nuclear weapons testing which would break the 28-year-long U.S. moratorium on such behavior.

It was on May 22nd that the Washington Post reported that senior Trump officials discussed whether to set off a nuclear test explosion, a demonstration nuclear test, to try to put pressure on Russia and on China. One senior official said that such a test could prove useful from a negotiating standpoint as the Trump administration tries to engage China in talks and to change Russia's position on certain nuclear issues. The idea was opposed by a number of other senior officials but the Post reports that the idea is still under active consideration.

How will new U.S. nuclear tests affect global security?

Let's be clear: the resumption of U.S. nuclear weapons testing would not advance the cause of arms control; it would be an invitation for other nuclear-armed countries to follow suit. A resumption of U.S. nuclear testing would lead the Russians, the Chinese, the Indians, perhaps the North Koreans to resume nuclear testing. It would allow them to proof-test new and more dangerous types of nuclear weapons. It would be the starting gun for an unprecedented global nuclear arms race that would hurt U.S. and international security for years and years to come.

Can the President really do that, and how quickly?

Yes, he can and relatively quickly. The National Nuclear Security Administration is currently poised to conduct a simple nuclear test within six to ten months if so ordered by the president. Such a test would not be designed to fix some technical problem with an existing U.S. nuclear warhead nor would it be to proof-test a new nuclear warhead design. It would be a simple demonstration test with little instrumentation. It would be conducted underground at the former Nevada Test Site just outside of Las Vegas. But Congress can act to deny funding for tests and to prevent the president from doing so.

Haven’t we ended nuclear testing permanently?

The United States ended nuclear test explosions in 1992 and led the way in the negotiation of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which today has 184 states signing the treaty. Even though the treaty is in existence, the door to nuclear testing is still open. The United States and China are among the eight states that have not yet ratified the treaty and they must do so to bring the treaty into force to make sure that the monitoring and verification and inspections regime is as strong as possible.

To learn more, visit ArmsControl.org/Factsheets for what you should know about the history of nuclear testing and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.


Executive director Daryl Kimball describes recent discussions by senior Trump administration officials to resume U.S. nuclear weapons testing and the effect such would have on global security and arms control.

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