After accusing Russia and China of secretly carrying out low-yield nuclear tests amidst the tensions of the coronavirus pandemic, US President Donald Trump wants to conduct the country’s first nuclear weapons tests since 1992.
A senior Trump administration official and two ex-officials told The Washington Post that a nuclear test could show the world that the US can “rapid test” as well as strengthen the country’s position as Trump seeks a trilateral military and weapons deal with Russia and China.
Unnecessary Show of Strength
Trump first pulled the US from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia (which banned ground-launched medium-range missiles with a range of between 500 and 5,500 km). Later, he nixed the 18-year-old Open Skies Treaty (which allowed 34 signatory countries to conduct surveillance flights over each other’s territories to observe military installations). Now, Trump wants to dump the 2010 New START Treaty (which limits US and Russian deployed strategic warheads), due to expire in February 2021, unless China comes into arms control negotiations.
The US decision to break the moratorium on nuclear testing is designed to add pressure on China (Xi Jinping has rejected calls for talks so far).
“They discussed underground testing in the context of trying to bring China to the table for the trilateral agreement,” a former official said. “Among the professionals in the administration, the idea was dismissed as unworkable and dumb. The NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] is definitely not on board. And it seemed like that state [department] wasn’t on board either.”
A Terrible Idea
Arms control advocates say a nuclear test would dramatically up the ante for China and all the other nuclear-armed nations and launch a dangerous nuclear arms race in the middle of a pandemic. Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (the group that won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize), warned a Trump nuclear test could “plunge us back into a new Cold War.” “It would also blow up any chance of avoiding a dangerous new nuclear arms race. It would complete the erosion of the global arms control framework,” she said in a statement.
Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, told The Washington Post: “It would be an invitation for other nuclear-armed countries to follow suit. It would be the starting gun to an unprecedented nuclear arms race. You would also disrupt the negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who may no longer feel compelled to honour his moratorium on nuclear testing. If this administration believes that a nuclear test explosion and nuclear brinkmanship is going to coerce negotiating partners to make unilateral concessions, that’s a dangerous ploy.”
Eric Gomez, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, believes the US resumption of nuclear testing would backfire, with China and Russia resuming their own nuclear tests: “America’s stockpile stewardship program is much better than Russia’s or China’s — there is more we can figure out about weapons from not testing them compared to our adversaries. Therefore, a US test would reveal relatively little unique information to us, while Russian and Chinese tests that would likely follow ours would be very valuable for their own weapon designers.”
Lassina Zerbo, head of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation (an international nuclear watchdog monitoring CTBT), has warned that a US return to nuclear testing would present a “grave challenge to global peace and security”: “In general, any actions or activities by any country that violate the international norm against nuclear testing, as underpinned by the CTBT, would constitute a grave challenge to the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime, as well as to global peace and security more broadly.”
Reckless and Dangerous
In its response, China has expressed grave concern over Trump’s nuclear test threat, which it sees as potentially undermining a thinly-balanced consensus among the world’s nuclear powers. Zhao Lijian, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, reminded Washington: “Though it (CTBT) has not yet entered into force, banning nuclear testing has become an international norm. The CTBT is of great significance for nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, and world peace and security. All five nuclear-weapon states, including the US, have signed the treaty and committed to a moratorium on nuclear tests.
“The US has conducted the highest number of nuclear tests. We urge it to assume its due obligation and honor its commitment by upholding the purpose and objective of the treaty and contributing to the international disarmament and non-proliferation regime, instead of further disrupting global strategic stability.”Zhao Lijian, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson
The Human Cost
The White House discussing the possibility of blowing up nuclear weapons in the desert for the first time in nearly three decades is a provocative, foolish, reckless, and scientifically weak way to make a political point. It makes the world less safe in the current coronavirus environment. It is bound to provoke Iran into developing nuclear weapons. It would encourage countries like North Korea and Pakistan to continue developing and testing their own nuclear weapons for self-defense. And lastly, it would further weaken global non-proliferation efforts.
A resumption of nuclear testing could lead to a domino effect, killing thousands of innocent Americans and exposing millions more to radioactive fallout. Shamanda Hanerg, president of Radiation Exposure Awareness Crusaders for Humanity-Marshall Islands (REACH-MI), paints a shocking picture: “Our grandparents and parents suffered tremendously from the horrific effects of the nuclear testing (by the US Government) on our beautiful islands. That was 74 years ago. We haven’t returned to our home, our ancestral heritage, because our land is contaminated by the many toxins and poisons we can’t even pronounce. Some of our islands were vaporized instantly from nuclear testing.
“We suffered severe burns from being in the direct fallout of the bombs. We continue to have miscarriages, stillbirths, birth defects, various cancers, genetic disorders, and many more illnesses.Shamanda Hanerg, president of Radiation Exposure Awareness Crusaders for Humanity-Marshall Islands (REACH-MI)
“The enormity of the devastation of damages done by nuclear testing is unfathomable, unthinkable, and inhumane. The mass destruction of the bombs on our islands has left us, nuclear nomads…emotionally, mentally, and physically scarred forever.
“More than ever we need to be emboldened and united in our quest to fight for justice and nuclear disarmament. For the US Government to even consider continuing with nuclear testing would be an injustice to the People of the Marshall Islands.”
Watch: Atomic Testing in the Marshall Islands