• The test—or threat of a test—would reportedly be used as a bargaining chip in arms control negotiations.
• The test is technically possible, but the negative aspects of resuming testing outweigh the positives.
The White House has discussed conducting a new nuclear weapons test, the first in nearly three decades. The idea of a test reportedly came up during a meeting of the President’s National Security Council, as a bargaining chip in arms control discussions with Russia and China. The test would be unnecessarily provocative and would weaken attempts to limit the nuclear arsenals of countries such as North Korea, Pakistan, and others.
According to the Washington Post, the matter was brought up at the meeting, but:
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.
The U.S. conducted 1,030 nuclear weapons tests between 1945 and 1992, the year the tests ended. After the end of the Cold War, America’s nuclear arsenal was gradually de-emphasized: weapons were taken off high readiness alert; new bombers, missiles, and other delivery systems were cancelled or deferred; and the number of warheads were reduced by arms control agreements.
In 2018, the U.S. accused Russia of violating the 1987 INF Treaty, which it left in 2019. The U.S. has also accused Russia and China of recently conducting extremely low-yield nuclear tests, but has not offered enough details to allow independent verification. Presumably, the tests are an effort to “get tough” with both countries, demonstrating American resolve.
The U.S. government has signaled it’s open to a new deal limiting nuclear weapons, but wants China involved in a new three-way agreement. The U.S. currently has 6,185 nuclear warheads, while Russia has 6,490 nuclear warheads. China has approximately 290 weapons.
The U.S. could still test a nuclear weapon, and relatively quickly. The U.S. government, despite nearly three decades of inactivity, still has the means to do a nuclear test. The Nevada National Security Site, formerly known as the National Test Site, was the site of hundreds of nuclear tests, and there are still unused testing shafts dug decades ago and available for use.
Simply put, the government would lower a nuke into the shaft and then detonate it. The test would likely be conducted on the northern side of the NNSS—the growth of nearby Las Vegas has limited how much of the range is still useful.
The use of a nuclear weapons test as a bargaining chip would cut both ways. On one hand, a new nuclear test would signal to other countries the U.S. is willing to restart the expensive process of developing new nuclear weapons, forcing them to do the same thing unless an arms control agreement were reached. A test of a weapon drawn from the national stockpile would also help prove the reliability of the arsenal.
The negatives of such a test outweigh the positives. If the U.S. resumes testing, Russia and China will likely follow suit, and the U.S. isn’t the only country that can refine its nuclear designs through testing. The test weapon might not work, a result we would definitely not want our enemies to know about. Finally, a U.S. nuclear test would encourage rogue countries such as North Korea to continue testing and developing their own nuclear weapons.
A new nuclear test is far from a done deal, and was reportedly opposed by the National Nuclear Security Administration, the federal agency in charge of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. That suggests that support for the test is drawn more from political considerations than practical ones.
The U.S has spent decades building goodwill by refusing to test. It would be a mistake to squander that goodwill on an unnecessary demonstration of strength that ends up benefitting no one.