The issue arose at a meeting of senior officials representing senior national security agencies last Friday, following allegations by administration officials that Russia and China were conducting low-yield nuclear tests – a claim that was not backed by publicly available evidence and that both the parties denied.
A senior administration official, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive nuclear discussions, said Moscow’s and Beijing’s demonstrations that the United States could “test quickly”
The meeting did not end with any test agreement, but a senior administration official said the proposal was “an almost continuous conversation”. However, another person familiar with the meeting said that in the end it was decided to take other measures in response to the threats made by Russia and China and to avoid the resumption of tests.
The National Security Council declined to comment.
During the meeting, serious disagreements arose over the idea, particularly from the National Nuclear Security Administration, according to two people familiar with the discussions. NNSA, the agency that ensures the safety of the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile, did not respond to a request for comment.
The United States has not conducted a nuclear test explosion since September 1992, and proponents of nuclear nonproliferation warn that this could have destabilizing consequences.
“This would be an invitation for other nuclear-armed countries to follow suit,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “This would be the starting pistol for an unprecedented nuclear arms race. You will also suspend talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who may no longer feel forced to abide by his moratorium on nuclear tests. “
The United States remains the only country to introduce nuclear weapons during wartime, but since 1945, at least eight countries have collectively conducted about 2,000 nuclear tests, of which more than 1,000 have been conducted by the United States.
The effects of nuclear tests on the environment and health shifted the process underground, eventually leading to an almost global moratorium on testing in this century, with the exception of North Korea. Concerns about the dangers of the test have prompted more than 184 countries to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, an agreement that will not enter into force until it has been ratified by eight key countries, including the United States.
President Barack Obama supported the ratification of the CTBT in 2009, but never achieved his goal. The Trump administration has said it will not seek ratification in its 2018 nuclear review.
However, the main nuclear powers comply with their basic test ban. But the United States has claimed in recent months that Russia and China have violated the “zero yield” standard with extremely low-yield or underground tests, rather than the type of multi-kiloton Cold War-related mushroom cloud mining tests. Russia and China deny the claim.
Following the establishment of a moratorium on testing in the early 1990s, the United States has ensured that its nuclear weapons are ready for deployment by conducting so-called subcritical tests – explosions that do not cause a nuclear chain reaction but can test weapon components,
Nuclear weapons facilities in the United States have also developed robust computer simulation technologies that allow modeling of nuclear tests to ensure that the arsenal is ready for deployment.
The main purpose of nuclear tests has long been to test the reliability of an existing arsenal or to test new weapon designs. Each year, senior US officials, including the heads of national nuclear laboratories and the commander of the US Strategic Command, must certify the safety and reliability of stocks without testing. The Trump administration has said that, unlike Russia and China, it does not pursue new nuclear weapons, but reserves the right to do so if both sides refuse to negotiate their programs.
Thoughts of a nuclear test explosion come as the Trump administration prepares to leave the Open Skies Treaty, a nearly 30-year pact that went into effect in 2002 and is designed to reduce the chances of an accidental war by allowing mutual intelligence flights for members of the agreement with 34 countries.
The planned withdrawal is another example of the erosion of the global arms control framework that Washington and Moscow began working hard during the Cold War. The Trump administration withdrew from the 1987 pact with Russia, which controls medium-range missiles, citing violations by Moscow, and withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, saying Tehran did not comply. with the spirit of it.
The main remaining pillar of the US-Russia arms control framework is the New START Pact, which places restrictions on strategic nuclear platforms.
The Trump administration is pushing for a follow-up deal that includes China in addition to Russia, but China has rejected calls for talks so far.
Trump’s presidential envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingsley, warned that China was “the middle ground” of a large build-up of its nuclear arsenal and “an intention to build its nuclear forces and use those forces to try to intimidate the United States and our friends.” allies. “
A U.S. official said the nuclear test could help pressure Chinese to join a tripartite agreement with the United States and Russia, but some proponents of nonproliferation said such a move was risky.
“If this administration believes that an explosion with a nuclear test and a nuclear coin will force negotiating partners to make unilateral concessions, that is a dangerous move,” Kimball said.
An earlier version of this story had to say that about 2,000 nuclear tests had been conducted since 1945, no more than 8,000.