May 29, 2020,The teapot nuclear test in Nevada in 1955.
National Nuclear Security Administration
It’s worse than a bad idea, multiple nuclear experts said.
“A bad idea is waiting a week too long to begin testing for the coronavirus,” said Joe Cirincione, a nuclear expert with the San Francisco-based Ploughshares Fund. “A bad idea is doing daily press briefings where you attack the press.”
“This,” Cirincione said of nuke-testing, “is a catastrophically stupid idea.”
The United States last conducted a live, explosive test of a nuclear warhead in September 1992. Four years later the United States signed, but did not ratify, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
The treaty all but ended major nuclear-weapons tests by the world’s established atomic powers. These same powers continued testing their nuclear warheads using sophisticated computer simulations.
“There is no national-security reason to test,” Cirincione said. “With the modern computer and technical diagnostic tools, our national laboratories know more about the performance of our nuclear weapons than ever before. The labs have repeatedly certified for decades that the stockpile is safe, reliable and effective.”
But live explosive tests are necessary for the development of new warhead designs. “Testing thus opens the floodgates to developing all kinds of new and different nuclear weapons,” said Bruce Blair, a Princeton University nuclear expert.
If the United States resumed testing, so too could countries whose own nuclear arsenals aren’t as sophisticated as America’s is. “India, Pakistan, perhaps China and most certainly North Korea would promptly test,” Cirincione said. “Who in their right minds would want to give these nations better nuclear weapons? But that is what new U.S. tests would do. They would breed nuclear tests around the world.”
“Russia and China have a lot more to gain from explosive testing than we do,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
“China has limited stores of weapons-grade plutonium and heavy warhead designs,” said Gregory Kulacki, a nuclear expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Massachusetts. “A resumption of explosive testing allow them to test lighter, more efficient designs that would stretch their limited stores of fissile material and make it easier for them to put multiple warheads on their missiles.”
The result most likely would be a runaway nuclear-arms race, of the kind that diplomats spent decades trying to contain during the Cold War. An arms race, Lewis said, “is a bad thing.”
“Arms racing increases unpredictability and the risk of conflict escalating into nuclear war,” Blair explained. “It also would motivate non-nuclear countries to go nuclear and thus encourage proliferation.”
“In short,” Blair said, “testing runs contrary to the U.S. national security interest by making the outbreak of nuclear war more likely.”