Reports that the Trump Administration has considered conducting the first U.S. nuclear test explosion in almost 30 years to create “negotiating leverage” with Russia and China to reach a new agreement on limiting nuclear arms are alarming. Although the administration has not spoken publicly on this matter, we feel compelled to comment because of the enormous consequences that would follow such a test.
The extensive American program of science-based stockpile stewardship, nuclear weapons surveillance, and life extension provides no indication that such testing is needed. One of us signed the annual stockpile certification letter to the President as recently as January 2017. That letter, just as with those signed by Secretaries of Defense and Energy for more than two decades, reiterated that there was no technical issue that required testing and none could be foreseen for a very long time—informed by the Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia national laboratories’ directors, as well as the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command.
A test intended to create “negotiating leverage” would have just the opposite effect. It would make it even harder to dissuade North Korea from conducting more tests and continuing to expand its nuclear arsenal and would eviscerate any constraints on other nuclear capable states, as well as potential adversaries, like Russia and China. Moreover, a resurgence of nuclear testing may not be reversible for decades, paving the way to new nuclear weapon states and the development of even more destructive nuclear capabilities and elevated risks from others—a legacy no president should want.
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.
Shaking the Nevada desert also would shake the already wobbly pillars of the arms control and non-proliferation regimes that have served us well for 50 years. The U.S. moratorium should continue.