On the 75th anniversary of the first nuclear test explosion in the New Mexico desert, leading scientists from Cambridge and across the country joined Sen. Edward J. Markey at a virtual press conference to express their strong opposition to the Trump Administration’s desire to resume the U.S. nuclear testing program. The scientists endorsed the PLANET Act, S.3886, legislation introduced by Markey that would prohibit the use of federal funds for nuclear weapons testing.
The June 16 press conference, organized by Cambridge-based Massachusetts Peace Action, announced the publication of an open letter in the July 17 issue of Science magazine warning that a resumption of testing would cause significant environmental harm, fuel a new nuclear arms race and could lead to accidental or intentional nuclear war. Some 70 scientists and other experts, including several Nobel laureates, signed the letter.
“Last month, the Trump Administration made the terrifying announcement that it won’t carry out a nuclear test at this time,” said Boston University professor Sheldon Glashow, winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics. “I certainly hope not. To do so would be an act of madness. Rather … we must strive to reduce and at last eliminate the world’s vast accumulation of these infernal and unnecessary nuclear warheads.”
Over several decades, the United States conducted 1,030 nuclear weapons test explosions, more than the combined total of tests by all other countries. The U.S. government stopped its atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in 1962, shortly before signing the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. It halted underground nuclear tests in 1992 and signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996. (A Republican-controlled Senate blocked ratification of that treaty, but the U.S. and 183 other countries have adhered to its provisions anyway).
But the Trump Administration is engaging in serious discussions to resume nuclear weapons testing. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican Trump supporter from Arkansas, has inserted an amendment into the National Defense Authorization Act that allocates “no less than $10 million” for resumption of nuclear weapons testing. The NDAA is currently under debate in Congress.
“Resumption of testing would ‘open the floodgates’ for a new nuclear arms race,” warned Markey.
“Nuclear testing would not make Americans safer but would give justification for North Korea, Pakistan and India to conduct tests,” noted George Smoot III, winner of the Nobel Laureate in Physics.
Prior to the 1963 atmospheric test ban, nuclear tests were carried out above ground, releasing radioactive isotopes that were carried into the atmosphere and slowly returned to the ground. The campaign in the U.S. to stop the testing was led by chemist Linus Pauling, his wife Ava Helen and thousands of scientists. The effort revealed that radioactive strontium-90 from fallout was accumulating in milk, bones and even baby teeth. This campaign, which mobilized mothers across the nation, together with President John Kennedy’s effort to pull back from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, led the U.S. Senate to ratify the atmospheric test ban treaty in 1963.
The U.S. government possesses nearly half of the world’s nuclear weapons, with thousands on hair-trigger alert. These include the nuclear triad of missiles in silos, bombs carried by long-range bombers and missiles with multiple warheads carried by submarines. The launch of the missiles from one Ohio class submarine could obliterate all the major cities of any country on earth, including Russia, China or India.
Nonetheless, the administration is proposing to spend $2 trillion of our tax dollars over the next 30 years to upgrade all three legs of the nuclear triad. This diversion of national wealth is one of the reasons that, in the richest country on earth, we can’t afford accurate and timely COVID-19 tests or sufficient masks, PPE and ventilators needed to control the pandemic. Nobel Laureate winner Richard Roberts, chief scientific officer of New England Biolabs, pointed out at the press conference, “the nation needs to mobilize its scientific resources to deal with global health threats rather than expanding the capabilities for nuclear war.”
Harvard professor Elaine Scarry, author of “Thermonuclear Monarchy,” said, “The current nuclear architecture in the United States arranges for a solitary person — the president — to launch a nuclear weapon without authorization from Congress or the population or any advisors. Similar arrangements exist in the other nuclear states. Given the extraordinary danger of nuclear catastrophe, any step that further enables nuclear warfare — such as the resumption of testing — should be morally unthinkable.”
The open letter can be found at bit.ly/3g37sGA.
Jonathan Alan King, a Cambridge resident, is a professor of molecular biology at MIT and co-chair of the board of directors of Massachusetts Peace Action.