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Nuclear Testing Is a Thing of the Past… Right?

A small but influential contingent of senior officials believes we should start testing again.

Words: Margaret Croy

Nuclear testing is back in the news, and not in a good way. Between a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) statement on the possibility of low-yield nuclear weapons testing in the Russian Federation, the controversy over a beer named Bikini Atoll, and the failure of certain International Monitoring System (IMS) stations to transmit information to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) after a presumed nuclear-powered cruise missile explosion off the coast of Russia, there is a lot linked to nuclear testing that has made its way into popular news. Unfortunately, the International Day against Nuclear Tests, August 29th, has not.

August 29 was codified as the International Day against Nuclear Tests on December 2, 2009 with United Nations General Assembly Resolution 64/35. Unanimously adopted by the UNGA, the resolution was first proposed by the Republic of Kazakhstan, and acquired a number of cosponsors. August 29 was selected as the annual date of celebration in commemoration of the closure of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site on August 29, 1991. Per the resolution, the day is devoted to “enhancing public awareness and education about the effects of nuclear weapon test explosions or any other nuclear explosions and the need for their cessation as one of the means of achieving the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world.”

While many in the nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament, and arms control field have a keen understanding of the horror wrought by the use of Little Boy and Fat Man, the two nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, it seems that fewer people are educated about the extent of the devastation inflicted by nuclear testing on communities around the world. This collective memory is particularly lacking in younger generations for an understandable reason; they were born after the cessation of the majority of nuclear testing worldwide. However, the reverberations of the horrors wrought by testing are still being felt by some communities and environments today. The International Day against Nuclear Tests, like the commemorations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Days, is meant to give dedicated space for an expression of experiences by those who have lived through nuclear testing, to create collective memory of the extraordinary environmental and public health damage created by over 2,000 nuclear tests worldwide.

From a security standpoint, the nuclear arsenal modernization taking place in nuclear weapons programs around the world has already sparked a resurgence in arms-race mentality.

While it’s true that most of the world abides by a de facto moratorium on nuclear testing, and that there are only eight more so-called “Annex 2” states that must sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) before it enters into force and becomes legally binding, those eight states aren’t likely to sign anytime soon, and there is a slow denigration of the norm that keeps that de facto moratorium in place. The Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), in place since 1987, died on August 2, 2019, after the US withdrew from the Treaty, citing repeated Russian violations. New START, another treaty focused on American and Russian nuclear forces, looks unlikely to be extended before it expires in February 2021. Its collapse would mean that all bilateral arms control treaties between the US and the former USSR, agreed to during the height of Cold War tensions, would be figments of the past. While there is still time on the clock for a New START extension, the state of bilateral treaty affairs between the US and Russia is a sign of the crumbling arms control regime and the resurgence of “great power” competition, which is no longer limited to those two nations (looking at you, China). In that environment, it is not hard to see how some might argue for the resumption of nuclear testing based on a described (if inaccurate) national security “need.”

Indeed, there has been a longstanding debate within the US legislative and policy community about the merits of nuclear testing, for a wide variety of reasons (not all linked to security). Before the harmful effects of radiation were fully known, the US and the USSR signed the Treaty Between The United States of America and The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Underground Nuclear Explosions for Peaceful Purposes (PNE Treaty), which was designed to protect the right to use nuclear detonations for peaceful purposes (like mining) in the two nations. Just days ago, President Trump inquired about the possibility of detonating a nuclear weapon in the eye of a hurricane to throw it off course. While both of these examples are comically absurd, many more are not. Robert R. Monroe, Retired Vice Admiral of the US Navy and former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency, is one of the strongest proponents of the concept that a resumption of nuclear testing is required for national security, and has written at length about these views in The Hill and the Washington Times. Former Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) authored a piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Why We Need To Test Nuclear Weapons.” Then-Senator Kyl noted that in 2008, “Paul Robinson, chairman emeritus of Sandia National Laboratory, testified before Congress that the reliability of US nuclear weapons still cannot be guaranteed without testing them, despite more than a decade of investments in technological advancements.”

There are many good arguments, security-related and not, for why the resumption of nuclear testing is a terrible idea. From a security standpoint, the nuclear arsenal modernization taking place in nuclear weapons programs around the world has already sparked a resurgence in arms-race mentality. Nuclear testing, while perhaps framed as stockpile stewardship and as confirmation of a credible deterrent capability, would most assuredly be perceived by adversaries as aggressive posturing, and unfortunately this perception matters more than the original intent. From an environmental and public health perspective, a resumption of testing would mean that those workers involved in the testing procedure would be at higher risk for elevated doses of radiation, as would the public, as radiation leakage is always a risk. This is not to mention the risk to the environment posed by the release of radioactive material created by the detonation of a nuclear device. Even if every containment precaution is taken, history serves as a clear reminder that nuclear accidents have devastating effects on the environment and those living in it (consider Chernobyl, Fukushima, 3 Mile Island, and others).

Clearly, some US officials at senior levels still believe that nuclear testing is not only good but necessary for the maintenance of the US nuclear weapons arsenal. The various aforementioned arguments about why this is a problematic proposal — environmental health, public safety, signaling aggressiveness to US adversaries, fiscal impact, uselessness (with regard to diverting hurricanes) et cetera — have not changed their minds. Many have said that we live in an age of declining and degrading norms. If this statement is taken as true, we should not assume that a normative moratorium on nuclear weapons testing will last forever, particularly in light of the small but influential contingent of senior officials who believe in the resumption of testing. The International Day against Nuclear Tests is a yearly reminder of the horrors that nuclear testing has wrought upon environments and populations worldwide, both past and present. May we remember those horrors well enough so as not to relive them.

Margaret Croy is a Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal, and not representative of any professional affiliation.

Margaret Croy

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