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Administration considers resuming nuclear testing

Updated May 29, 2020 - 1:18 pm

The Trump administration has discussed whether to conduct the first U.S. nuclear test explosion since 1992 in a move that would have far-reaching consequences for relations with other nuclear powers and reverse a decades-long moratorium on such actions, the Washington Post reported Thursday.

A senior administration official and two former officials familiar with the deliberations said the matter came up at a meeting of senior officials representing the top national security agencies May 15, following accusations from administration officials that Russia and China are conducting low-yield nuclear tests. Both countries have denied that, and no publickly available evidence substantiates the claim.

A senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive nuclear discussions, said that demonstrating to Moscow and Beijing that the United States could “rapid test” could prove useful from a negotiating standpoint as Washington seeks a trilateral deal to regulate the arsenals of the biggest nuclear powers.

The meeting did not conclude with any agreement to conduct a test, but a senior administration official said the proposal is “very much an ongoing conversation.” Another person familiar with the meeting, however, said a decision was ultimately made to take other measures in response to threats posed by Russia and China and avoid a resumption of testing.

Two people familiar with the discussions said there were serious disagreements over the testing idea, especially from the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Post reported. The NNSA did not respond to a request for comment.

According to Defense News, Drew Walter, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear matters, said a live nuclear test could be arranged within “months” if requested by the president. But Walter added that there “has been no policy change” when it comes to avoiding live nuclear testing.

The United States has not conducted a nuclear test explosion since September 1992.

“It would be an invitation for other nuclear-armed countries to follow suit,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “It would be the starting gun to an unprecedented nuclear arms race. You would also disrupt the negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who may no longer feel compelled to honor his moratorium on nuclear testing.”

Since 1945, at least eight countries have collectively conducted about 2,000 nuclear tests, of which more than 1,000 were carried out by the United States.

The environmental and health-related consequences of nuclear testing moved the process underground, eventually leading to a near-global moratorium on testing in this century with the exception of North Korea. Concerns about the dangers of testing prompted more than 184 nations to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, an agreement that will not enter into force until ratified by eight key states, including the United States.

President Barack Obama supported the ratification of the CTBT in 2009, but the Trump administration said it would not seek ratification in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

Since establishing a moratorium on testing in the early 1990s, the United States has ensured that its nuclear weapons are ready to be deployed by conducting what are known as subcritical tests — blasts that do not produce a nuclear chain reaction but can test components of a weapon.

U.S. nuclear weapons facilities have also developed robust computer simulation technologies that allow for modeling of nuclear tests to ensure the arsenal is ready to deploy.

The deliberations over a nuclear test explosion come as the Trump administration prepares to leave the Treaty on Open Skies, a nearly 30-year-old pact that came into force in 2002 during the presidency of George W. Bush and was designed to reduce the chances of an accidental war by allowing mutual reconnaissance flights for members of the 34-country agreement.

The planned withdrawal marks another example of the erosion of a global arms-control framework that Washington and Moscow began hashing out painstakingly during the Cold War. The Trump administration pulled out of a 1987 pact with Russia negotiated under President Ronald Reagan governing intermediate-range missiles, citing violations by Moscow, and withdrew from a 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, claiming Tehran wasn’t living up to the spirit of it.

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