Mushroom Clouds Beneath the Surface: The Dangers of a Return to Nuclear Testing


On Oct. 2, 1992, President George H.W. Bush reluctantly made history with the stroke of a pen. One year after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared a unilateral moratorium on nuclear weapons testing, Bush signed into law an appropriations bill that placed a similar unprecedented restriction on the United States. Ironically, the president personally opposed this specific measure, but his signature has become one of his lasting legacies. The U.S. nuclear testing moratorium has been upheld by all of Bush’s successors, and remains in effect today.

Year after year, the heads of U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories have assessed that the U.S. stockpile is reliable, and that resuming explosive nuclear testing is unnecessary. In fact, the Stockpile Stewardship program, which “tests” nuclear weapons by other means, including advanced simulations via supercomputers, has provided laboratory scientists with more information about the U.S. stockpile than when explosive tests were regularly occurring.

But today, the Trump administration is indicating that those assessments may not be enough. While the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review included a blanket commitment not to conduct explosive nuclear tests, the Trump administration’s 2018 version of the document argues that the United States “must remain ready to resume nuclear testing if necessary to meet severe technological or geopolitical challenges [emphasis added].” Severe technological challenges that could merit a return to testing do not currently exist. Specific geopolitical challenges, a new criterion, are not defined. Does this mean the administration could resume testing if China continues making aggressive moves in the South China Sea? If North Korea tests another missile? If Russian hackers disrupt U.S. government websites?

In November 2017, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) released its annual Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, the first under the Trump administration. Buried in this 328-page document lies new language that the agency stands ready to conduct a “simple” nuclear test as little as six months after receiving an order. A “simple” test is an explosion underground without full scientific instrumentation to analyze and assess the reliability of a nuclear weapon. As former NNSA administrator Linton Brooks told Kyodo News, such a test would be done not for scientific or security advancement, but to demonstrate “political resolve.” The benefit of such a test, likely at what once was the Nevada Test Site (the home of more than 900 U.S. nuclear tests), largely amounts to nuclear braggadocio at the expense of U.S. national security.

Combined, the two documents suggest that the Trump administration is laying the groundwork to resume explosive nuclear testing at its discretion. History reminds us that this would have catastrophic consequences. Resumed nuclear testing would bring with it not just environmental and health risks, but also the erosion of an important international norm and the likely setting off an international testing race – with no benefits for the United States.

Over the course of nearly 50 years prior to Bush’s signature, the United States conducted over 1,000 explosive nuclear tests (five underwater, approximately 200 in the atmosphere, and about 800 underground), the most of any country on Earth. These tests, particularly the atmospheric explosions, created environmental, social, and health consequences through radiation dispersal and other effects, some of which continue to be evident.

New explosive tests, even if only underground, would also present many dangers. Visitors in high-rise hotels in sprawling Las Vegas, 70 miles south of the test site, would physically feel the ground shake. And since underground tests sometimes leak, the surrounding area may be exposed to radioactive fallout.

The geopolitical consequences would be worse, amounting to a nuclear testing race. In 1961, the Soviet Union caught the world by surprise and broke its pledge with the United States and Great Britain to refrain from testing, conducting well over 100 tests over the next two years. The United States rushed to keep up, also carrying out more than 100 tests, mostly underground, by the end of 1962. France and Great Britain also tested during this time period, and China conducted its first test in 1964.

If the United States were to resume nuclear testing today, a similar international reaction would likely occur. Russia and China, attempting to keep up, would almost certainly resume testing themselves. India and Pakistan, bitter archrivals that both reserve the right to resume nuclear testing, would likely see a green light to explode nuclear weapons once more. India may see an opportunity to test new, unproven thermonuclear weapons – which it is allegedly pursuing – and Pakistan would be compelled to respond, similar to the infamous nuclear tests conducted by both countries in 1998.

In the early 1960s, with nuclear explosions taking place at a rate of roughly every other day, international and domestic pressure brought the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union to the negotiating table once again. (The Cuban Missile Crisis was also a major factor). What resulted was the Limited Test Ban Treaty, a 1963 agreement still in effect that bans all nuclear explosions, except underground.

It took three more decades, and the end of the Cold War, for a complete international nuclear test ban to appear. The United States was the first of 183 countries to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, which bans all explosive nuclear tests anywhere on earth. Only North Korea, a non-signatory, has explosively tested nuclear weapons in the 21st century.

But the United States has not yet ratified the treaty, meaning that it has signaled its intent to follow the treaty but is not legally bound by it. Because the U.S. Senate has yet to provide its advice and consent to ratify, some hawkish voices argue the United States can – and should – resume explosive nuclear testing. Former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), for example, has argued that “the reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons still cannot be guaranteed without testing them.” This is patently untrue, and it ignores the serious geopolitical and health consequences that resumed nuclear testing could cause.

Proponents continue to argue that Trump’s nuclear policies represent continuity with the previous administration’s. But Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review was very clear: “The United States will not conduct nuclear testing and will pursue ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.” The Trump administration has abandoned these commitments. Today, just as eight years ago, the rationale for nuclear testing should rest not on a propensity for showcasing U.S. power, but on the safety and reliability of the nuclear stockpile.


Philip E. Coyle is the senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. He served in top security roles in the Clinton and Obama administrations and previously was a top official at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. James McKeon is a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Image: U.S. Department of Energy from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons