WASHINGTON (Nov. 18, 2020)— As Congress finalizes the annual defense bill, some of the country’s leading scientists are calling for the bill to block the resumption of explosive, underground nuclear weapons testing.
Today, a conference committee met to begin reconciling differences between the Senate and House versions of the bill before lawmakers vote on final passage of the National Defense Authorization Act in early December. One of the most contentious issues is the possibility of funding the first U.S. nuclear weapons testing in nearly three decades.
The Senate bill contains $10 million to prepare for a nuclear weapons test if the White House chooses to move forward with one. The House took the opposite course, voting to prohibit funding for a nuclear test explosion in fiscal year 2021.
“Conducting an explosive nuclear test is an invitation to other states to test as well, including those that, like the U.S., stopped testing years ago,” says Dr. Laura Grego, senior scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It would erode confidence in the nuclear nonproliferation regime, and would likely kick off a new round of the nuclear arms race.”
While it is unlikely that the incoming Biden administration would carry out any nuclear tests, scientists are concerned the $10 million in the Senate bill would send a dangerous message to the rest of the world about U.S. nuclear intentions.
A dozen premier American scientists—including past administration officials and former directors of national nuclear weapons labs—pointed out in a recent letter to Congress that explosive nuclear testing is not needed for technical or military reasons. The Department of Energy has been evaluating the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons for the past two decades through computer simulations and testing weapon components without producing a nuclear chain reaction. Every year, the Department of Energy and Department of Defense confirm that the U.S. nuclear arsenal remains safe, reliable and militarily effective. and that explosive nuclear testing is unnecessary.
“From a technical perspective, underground nuclear testing is not needed at this time and would likely divert funding and distract people from the important and well-planned work of the science-based stockpile stewardship program,” says Jill Hruby, former director of Sandia National Labs and a signer of the letter.
While the risks of atmospheric nuclear tests are obvious, even underground testing that the administration is contemplating can be dangerous. Previous U.S. underground tests, such as Sedan in 1962 and Baneberry in 1970, released large amounts of radioactive fallout. Many Americans continue to deal with the devastating environmental and health impacts caused by previous testing. The U.S. government has not adequately compensated victims of testing, and there is still no method for cleaning up the plutonium and other long-lived radionuclides that were left underground at the test sites.
The Trump administration reportedly considered resuming testing to pressure Russia and China to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear arms control treaty. But according to the scientists’ letter, resuming testing could prompt Russia and China, and possibly North Korea, India and Pakistan, to resume their own explosive testing, while also causing some of the 185 non-nuclear weapons states to reconsider the commitments they made to forgo nuclear weapons when they signed onto the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.