By Robert Kelley
There are growing rumours that the United States is considering carrying out a nuclear test in the near future. Legislation introduced in the United States Senate suggests that this may not be an idle threat. The language in the recent amendment reads: “carry out projects related to reducing the time required to execute a nuclear test if necessary,” This threat indicates a complete lack of understanding of the political and technical difficulties such a move would introduce.
A nuclear test might be thought to be necessary if there is a problem to resolve in the nuclear weapons stockpile or a new system to develop. Alternatively, it would be a political threat designed to frighten adversaries, encourage nuclear proliferation and reheat the arms race.
The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is not in force. It was signed by the US but not ratified. A number of other states have not ratified it either and it is in perpetual limbo. But the five weapons states have adhered to a voluntary informal test ban since the mid-1990s and seemed willing to remain in this situation indefinitely rather than actually bring the CTBT into force.
The four other nuclear weapons possessing states have loosely adhered to the informal moratorium as well, with DPRK being the only state in the world to conduct any, namely 6, nuclear tests in the 21st century.
A real nuclear test is not just a “test;” it should be a very complicated nuclear experiment. It costs millions of dollars, and could take years to prepare unless it is a completely political exercise: to produce a big bang and assert dominance. A nuclear test would be done in the name of science.
It is particularly ironic that the Trump administration would have an interest to test, given its aversion to scientific testing. It is on the record that more testing creates more problems. A complex nuclear experiment requires hundreds of skilled workers and technicians as well as support from disciplines such as security and publicity.
If the US decided to take such a step it would first have to decide what to test. There are two highly competitive nuclear weapons laboratories in the US. They each are responsible for about half of the American nuclear weapon stockpile and it would certainly be a device from their “enduring stockpiles.”
There are no reported problems in that stockpile so the test would have to sort out the competing interests of the two laboratories and the US Government and invent a cause. It is easy to overlook the fact that the Department of Energy (DOE) has complete responsibility for the nuclear stockpile including carrying out a test.
The Department of Defense (DoD) only has custody for the weapons for its military missions. The two departments and Congress would have to sort out what to test. The Senate’s move to add $10 million to the DoD budget instead of DOE shows ignorance of basic governmental organization.
Most the enduring stockpile weapons have yields in excess of 150 kt. This introduces a new problem. The US is a party to the Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT) which limits test yields to 150 kt.
The majority of US stockpile weapons would require a test in excess of 150 kt if they are tested at full yield. Unlike withdrawing from an informal agreement, this will mean an actual violation of a ratified treaty.
Readiness to resume testing is already a US priority. DOE is required by the 1993 PDD-15 to maintain the capability to conduct a nuclear test. Several tens of millions of dollars per year are provided to the contractor running the Nevada National Security Site, formerly known as the Nevada Test Site.
I was on the management team that ran the Test Site in the late-1990s and we were contracted to be able to field a test within 24 to 36 months. This included physical preparations: test shafts in the desert, equipment and cabling to connect to the device underground, all imaginable support functions to aid the National Laboratories to emplace a nuclear device and explode it.
One of the most critical steps was to ensure that the device was emplaced deep in the ground in a tightly sealed shaft so that no radiation would be released. Despite extensive experience in this technology, the National Laboratories were not always successful in achieving zero release. That was accepted as a cost of doing business in a cold war mentality but it would not be acceptable in the 2020s.
The Baneberry underground test in 1970 blew out of its shaft releasing a huge cloud of radioactive dust. This cloud and many others from the Nevada Test Site drifted east across the Republican heartland. Will the voters of flyover land be as willing to be guinea pigs for radioactive fallout in the 2020’s as they were in the 1960s and 1970s?
The Trump Administration has also failed to take into account that the US Department of Energy has a well-established track record of being unable to execute major projects of hundreds of millions of dollars within budget and schedule.
The day that it announces a planned execution date, the delays and cost overruns will begin. If DOE tries to cut corners to meet deadlines, disaster looms. Otherwise it is unlikely that the event will ever take place before a new administration is seated in 2024 or beyond.
In 1997, with a team of experienced scientists, engineers and geologists we always felt that 24-36 months was optimistic. This is before even considering the scale of public protest that would be likely in the 21st century, especially from the “downwinders” in Utah who bore the brunt of above ground testing Nevada before testing moved underground in 1963.
There are two segregated holding pens at the entrance to the Nevada Test Site. They were used to hold anti-testing demonstrators in the 1990s. These pens would need to be much larger in the 21st century and more guard patrols would be needed.
The test could also be a vehicle for multi-lateral cooperation. The US has conducted tests for the British since they lost their testing grounds in Australia. There is close cooperation with the French. Inviting Israeli scientists to test one of their devices or participate in a US test is a possibility consistent with US foreign policy, such as it is.
There is another alternative for the uncaring Trump administration. They might wittingly violate the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT). The LTBT forbids nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, the oceans and in outer space.
For a US administration willing to violate the TTBT and the informal adherence to the CTBT, doing an atmospheric test is another small indiscretion. If the purpose of the test is purely political then a highly visible explosion for the cameras is actually a plus. Dropping a nuclear bomb from an airplane, a missile test or explosion on a barge in the mid-Pacific Ocean would be highly visible. The environmental damage would be restricted but it would grab headlines around the world.
However the test might be done, it is a political statement designed to impress and threaten. If it is truly a test, an experiment to check a major weapon problem or develop a new weapon, politicians need to learn what scientists already know.
Tests and experiments sometimes do not produce the expected result. Imagine the reaction if the US invites observers to a test, fielded by amateurs who have never done a test, and nothing happens! Or it exceeds the expected yield throwing a cloud of radioactive debris into the air over adjacent US states and even beyond.
Another embarrassment for Trump awaits. Once he announces that he will test he will discover it takes several years to execute the order. He will simultaneously give license to the Russians and the Chinese to do the same. They, unburdened by democratic and environmental niceties, will be able to demand a test from their scientists on an expedited schedule. Imagine the shame when losers like Putin and Xi beat Trump to the end game!
The Trump administration has been actively tearing up arms control agreements for its entire existence. Exiting INF, New START and Open Skies all have one thing in common: nothing changes visibly in the short term in the public view. Ending inspections, commission meetings, cooperative exchanges along with the increased risk of war and spending reductions will be invisible to the general public. Nothing will visibly change in the immediate future that the public will notice.
Abrogating the voluntary test ban is markedly different. Things will change dramatically. Hundreds of millions of dollars will need to be appropriated and expended. Many new scientists and engineers will need to be recruited to carry out a complex testing experiment that has not been executed for 28 years.
The test will need to be touted widely if it is to have political impact, otherwise, there is no point. This will lead to a visible groundswell of opposition, including protests, marches, intrusions into the test site and arrests. This will not be a silent retreat from old obligations far from the public eye. This will be a big deal, an expensive and highly visible polarizing event.
Conducting a nuclear test is a very complex process and there are many impediments on the way to execution. The political hacks who are advocating this muscle-flexing exercise have no idea what they are getting into. The world of diplomacy and the CTBTO will have many arguments against a test.
There will be valid objections about the damage to arms control agreements that have made us safer since the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations showed wisdom and restraint. Trump is about to embark on a very slippery slope where the scientific gain is essentially zero and the opportunities for highly visible failure are lurking just beneath the surface.
Of course, it is clear that testing resumption releases a genie that has been successfully bottled up for nearly thirty years by thoughtful and experienced diplomats in the five weapons states in particular. Resuming testing is an expensive act in terms of treasure, a futile act in terms of maintaining nuclear peace and a clear signal the usable nuclear weapons are back on the strategic battlefield. Another sad day for arms control.
* Robert Kelley was also seconded by the USDOE to the IAEA where he served twice as a Director of the nuclear inspections in Iraq in 1992 and again in 2001. Kelley is currently based in Vienna. He has carried out professional travel to more than 20 countries.