As the U.S. and Russia are poised to meet on June 22nd for critical Arms Control negotiations, talk in Washington that the US will resume explosive nuclear testing threatens to sink the negotiations before they even begin. A test would be thought of as a response to the possibility that China may be conducting nuclear tests that do not conform to the “zero-yield” standard, according to a recent a State Department report. The accusations however have not been substantiated by any publicly available information and the evidence provided in the report is circumstantial. The testing of an American nuclear device would severely damage the efforts made to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons, encourage America’s adversaries to close the data gap on nuclear weapons, and pose great environmental danger.
Damage to International Arms Control Regime
While the U.S. has not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, it has observed a moratorium on nuclear explosive testing since 1992. A U.S. nuclear test would invite retaliatory nuclear testing not only by Russia and China, but also by other nuclear states like Pakistan, India and North Korea. The test would limit the United States’ ability to build international consensus around sanctions punishing the nuclear activities of rogue actors such as North Korea and Iran. When coupled with the other recent moves such as the Trump Administration’s hesitance to renew the New Start Treaty, it is clear that the current administration does not view the international arms control regime the U.S. has built as beneficial, despite the fact it has been successful in helping prevent the use of nuclear weapons.
China Stands to Gain
Rather than strengthening U.S. leverage, a nuclear test would weaken the advantages of its nuclear deterrent by encouraging its adversaries, particularly China, to close the data gap advantage the U.S. possesses over them. This data gap exists thanks to extensive US nuclear testing throughout the Cold War. The United States conducted 1,030 nuclear tests compared to Russia’s 715 and China’s 45. This testing has provided a great deal of data which provides an advantage over other nuclear powers. The Department of Energy, which maintains the US nuclear arsenal, has at its disposal several of the world’s most powerful supercomputers. When coupled with data from the U.S.’s prior real-world testing, America maintains an unmatched ability to simulate and model its nuclear weapons in the absence of explosive testing. This also allows the U.S. to ensure the reliability of its nuclear weapons stockpile without explosive testing—a process which takes place under the Stockpile Stewardship Program at Lawrence Livermore National Labs.
Testing a nuclear weapon will be perceived by other nuclear powers as a provocation, encouraging them to resume their own overt testing in response. Between China and Russia, China is poised to gain the most from resuming nuclear testing, as China possesses two of the world’s top 10 supercomputers, but lacks the extensive real-world nuclear testing data that the US possesses. Thus, further testing by China would help it to close the data gap and increase the effectiveness of its arsenal, thereby decreasing overall American nuclear advantage.
While any future nuclear U.S. nuclear test would be conducted underground, these tests still pose significant danger to the environment. Of particular concern is the contamination of groundwater located under the test site. It is estimated that U.S. nuclear testing during the Cold War contaminated over 1.6 Billion gallons of water underneath the Nevada Test Site. While underground testing limits the amount of radiation sent into the atmosphere compared to open air testing, there is the ever-present risk of accidents. One such accident is the 1970 underground Baneberry test, where a fissure in the ground allowed an amount of radiation comparable to open-air nuclear tests to escape into the atmosphere.
A U.S. nuclear test would invite overt retaliatory testing from Russia and China, limit its ability to confront rogue actors like Iran and North Korea on the world stage, allow its adversaries to close the data gap, and pose great environmental dangers. There is nothing to be gained from testing nuclear weapons as the U.S. it can already ensure the effectiveness of its arsenal by conducting computer simulations and testing that does not result in a nuclear explosion.