“If the president directed, because of a technical issue or a geopolitical issue, the system to go test, I think it would happen relatively rapidly,” Drew Walter, the Defense Department’s acting deputy assistant defense secretary for nuclear matters, said Tuesday at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event.
He added that “a very quick test with limited diagnostics” could occur “within months.”
The US hasn’t tested a nuclear weapon since September 23, 1992, just before negotiations for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) began in 1993. The United Nations adopted the treaty in 1996, and while the US has signed the treaty, the US Senate has never ratified it, a status shared with Egypt, Israel, Iran and China. India, Pakistan and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), additional nuclear powers named in the treaty, have not signed it.
Walter noted the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which maintains the US nuclear arsenal, “has a requirement to retain the ability to resume testing on particular timelines. Reviewing those timelines for the readiness posture regularly is always prudent.”
He added that NNSA officials “maintain the capability to do all of that underground work,” which Defense One explained means they have a location suitable for an underground nuclear test. Tests went underground in the mid-1960s following a ban on atmospheric tests, which dramatically reduced the amount of radioactive particles in the atmosphere.
Walter’s comments come amid reports by the Washington Post that the Trump administration has “an ongoing conversation” about reviving nuclear tests.
Citing “a senior administration official and two former officials familiar with the deliberations,” the Post reported on May 22 that the talks between senior officials of several top national security agencies occurred on May 15. They reportedly discussed the move in light of a US State Department report published in April accusing Russia and China of secretly carrying out low-yield nuclear weapons tests.
“The United States assesses that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons-related experiments that have created nuclear yield,” the State Department said, adding that activity at China’s Lop Nur test site in the Gobi Desert gives rise to “concerns regarding its adherence to the ‘zero yield’ standard” for nuclear weapons testing.
A senior Trump administration official told the Post the purpose of rapidly organizing such a test would potentially be to demonstrate to Beijing and Moscow that the US is capable of doing so.
“It would be an invitation for other nuclear-armed countries to follow suit,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told the Post. “It would be the starting gun to an unprecedented nuclear arms race … If this administration believes that a nuclear test explosion and nuclear brinkmanship is going to coerce negotiating partners to make unilateral concessions, that’s a dangerous ploy.”
On May 22, the US announced its departure from the Treaty on Open Skies, a multilateral agreement between the US, Russia and more than two dozen other countries permitting scheduled spy plane flights over each others’ territory since 2002. The purpose of the flights was to defuse suspicions about the other side secretly planning an attack or violating international treaty agreements, such as nuclear test bans.
The US accused Russia of failure to comply with the treaty, and US President Donald Trump has postured, as with other treaties and agreements from which the US has withdrawn under his tenure, that if Russia wants to retain the Open Skies Treaty, they can negotiate a new agreement.
Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) announced on May 24 he would soon introduce legislation to bring the CTBT into force, rather than merely the de facto adherence the US presently maintains.
“President Trump is risking a new, even more dangerous Cold War and willfully walking down a road that ends in nuclear conflict,” Markey said in the news release. “Previous US nuclear testing poisoned the ground and air with deadly radiation, and brought us closer to a catastrophic nuclear weapons exchange with the former Soviet Union. We cannot allow that to happen again.”
“If President Trump is sincere about engaging with Russia and China to prevent a renewed arms race, he can start by making the easiest decision of all – extending the New START Treaty. Doing so will keep a lid on the arsenals of both the United States and Russia,” Markey said, referring to the nuclear weapons limitation treaty set to expire next year.
In the letter addressed to Trump, Markey said he was “appalled” by Trump’s “imprudent action” and called ending the US nuclear testing moratorium “wholly unnecessary,” noting “it has little chance of success at achieving new arms control agreements compared to superior alternatives.”
Kevin Kamps, the radioactive waste watchdog at the organization Beyond Nuclear, told Radio Sputnik’s Loud and Clear Wednesday that nuclear weapons are nothing more than Nazi death camps “miniaturized and put on the tips of missiles, and now they’re called hydrogen bombs.”
“That’s the backdrop of all this madness that Trump is doing, by ripping up the Open Skies Treaty last week, by threatening to start nuclear weapons testing again,” he said, adding that leaving Open Skies “is a real signal that he fully intends on ripping up the New START Treaty ... the last remaining US-Russian arms control treaty. So if that gets ripped up, then we are back to … essentially the height of the Cold War.”