Testing Nuclear Weapons Again Would Be a Terrible Idea

The Washington Post has reported that the Trump administration discussed conducting the first U.S. nuclear test explosion since 1992. Experts say this is a bad way to make a political point.
May 29, 2020, 12:00pm

Donald Trump wants to blow up nuclear weapons in the desert again. America hasn’t detonated a nuke since 1992, but the White House is discussing the possible resumption of tests, according to The Washington Post. Trump is also withdrawing the U.S. from the Open Skies Treaty—a multinational agreement that, among other things, strengthens nuclear oversight. Nuclear watchdogs say that resumption of nuclear testing is foolish, lacks scientific merit, and makes the world less safe.

According to The Washington Post, senior White House officials discussed the resumption of nuclear testing during a meeting on May 15. Days later, Drew Walter, the former head of the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) told Defense Daily the U.S. could be setting off nukes in the desert in just a few months. According to Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, any test conducted in the near future would have no scientific merit.

“The thing they are talking about is not a test,” Lewis told Motherboard on the phone. “To do a test—a scientific experiment involving a nuclear weapon that was instrumented with diagnostics in order to learn something about nuclear weapons...that would take a couple of years. What they are discussing is a demonstration. They're just putting a nuclear weapon in the shaft. Not instrumenting it at all, they're not going to get any data from it. And just pressing the button to make a political point. They're not even pretending that there's any scientific value.”

Walter told Defense Daily that any detonation would be “a very quick test with limited diagnostics, though certainly diagnostics...a fuller test, fully diagnostic, and lots of data, all the bells and whistles, so to speak, might be measured in years.” U.S. Military intelligence have suggested that Russia and China are conducting low-yield nuclear tests. A senior Trump official told The Washington Post that America needs to prove it can still set off a nuke to bring them to the negotiating table. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) head Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr. has implied in public speeches that Russia is testing low-yield nukes, but has stopped short of an actual accusation. DIA reports and White House officials have also alleged that Russia is testing new nukes.

“The idea being that if we were exploding nuclear weapons in the desert, the Russians and the Chinese would pay us something to stop. Which is goofy,” Lewis said.

Russia and China have both denied testing new nuclear weapons. According to Lewis, there is no evidence that Russia and China are conducting low-yield nuclear tests. There’s also no evidence to suggest they aren’t. “No one has any evidence that they’re doing these things,” Lewis said. “Except that they have large, well-maintained test sites, which we do too. So what happens is people say, ‘You can’t prove they’re not.’ Well, actually, yeah we could prove they’re not if you would go ahead and sign the [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty] (CTBT) and have it enter into force so we could do on-site inspections.”

If America started detonating nukes in the desert after an almost 30 year hiatus, it’s a good bet that both Russia and China would resume their own nuclear tests.

Kingston Reif, Director of Disarmament & Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association, said that the resumption of nuclear testing threatens to reignite nuclear tensions between China, Russia, and the U.S.

“The fact that a return to nuclear testing was even discussed illustrates the depths some Trump administration officials are apparently willing to go to bring the entire global nuclear restraint temple down and spark an unconstrained arms race,” Reif told Motherboard in an email. “That a return to testing won't coerce Russia and China to the negotiating table is so patently obvious I can't believe it even needs to be said. A U.S. return to testing is far more likely to spark other nuclear-armed states to do the same. China in particular would have far more to gain from testing than the United States given that we conducted over 20 times as many tests as China. Moreover, the United State doesn't need to resume nuclear testing to ensure the reliability of its nuclear arsenal.”

America regularly tests its warheads to make sure they still work. There are explosions, just not nuclear ones. America’s nuclear scientists routinely test the explosive mechanisms that cause a nuclear detonation without actually setting off a nuke. The U.S. stopped detonating nukes in the early 1990s, and signed—but did not ratify—the United Nations CTBT. “What I suspect the real reason behind this is, is that these people hate both the test ban and the moratorium the US is living under and they would like to see the US return to explosive testing,” Lewis said.

Resumption of testing could be a critical first step to developing smaller low-yield nuclear weapons, something Trump has long wanted.

“I think it will make it politically possible for them to do low yield experiments, which are still prohibited by the [comprehensive test ban treaty.] But having threatened us with the really big thing, I think what they'll do is they'll turn around and compromise with lower yield tests, which can be clearly equally as bad,” Lewis said.

Reif agreed that the resumption of testing was about building new nukes, not testing the old ones.

“A common theme of the administration’s nuclear diplomacy is a preference for an unworkable all or nothing/go big or go home approach that is poised to make Trump the first president (Democrat or Republican) in decades not to negotiate a new nuclear arms control or risk reduction agreement,” he said. “In addition, the administration has proposed to expand the role of, capability of, and spending on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In sum this approach has resulted in a greater risk of instability, proliferation, and unconstrained great power nuclear competition.”

As Trump pushes for new nukes and the resumption of testing, he’s also withdrawing from existing arms agreements. On May 21, he announced that the U.S. will withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, a three decade old agreement between 35 member nations that allows them to fly over each other's countries to gather intelligence. The information gathered on all sides has been critical in keeping nuclear weapons programs in check.

With the U.S. leaving Open Skies, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is the last remaining major nuclear treaty between America and Russia. The treaty caps the number of nuclear missiles both countries can deploy. It will expire in 2021 unless renewed. Russia has said it would like to renew the treaty, but Trump is dragging his feet.

“The Trump administration's handling of nuclear issues has been a spectacular failure that has undermined the security of the United States and its allies,” Reif said. “The White House inherited several nuclear challenges to be sure, but it has made nearly all of them worse.”