Lawmakers Decide Against Nuclear Weapons Test Funding in Annual Defense Bill

Published Dec 3, 2020

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) applauds lawmakers for deciding not to authorize funds to prepare for the first U.S. nuclear weapons test in nearly three decades, an outcome UCS experts worked diligently to ensure because any move to resume explosive, underground nuclear weapons testing would undermine U.S. security.

Today, Congress released the conference report on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The Senate version had contained $10 million to lay the groundwork for a nuclear weapons test if the White House chose to move forward with one. The House took the opposite course, voting to prohibit funding for a nuclear test explosion in fiscal year 2021. The conference report includes neither provision.

“By refusing to give the test a green light, lawmakers are wisely avoiding the risk of an explosive nuclear test setting off a new round in the nuclear arms race,” said Dr. Laura Grego, senior scientist in the UCS Global Security Program.

A dozen premier American scientists with expertise on nuclear weapons issues sent a letter to Congress strongly opposing the resumption of explosive testing of U.S. nuclear weapons, saying it was unnecessary for technical or military reasons and that doing so would have negative security consequences for the United States.

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.

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.   

While the risks of atmospheric nuclear tests are obvious, even the underground testing that the Trump administration was 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.

“As a Downwinder, it came as a huge relief to learn that funding for new nuclear testing is not included in the budget,” said Mary Dickson, who grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, downwind of past nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site. “My hope would be that we never see a push for resumed nuclear testing again. We know too well what it did to too many Americans.”