July 4, 2020

The U.S. Is Considering Return to Nuclear Testing: New Challenges to Global Peace and Security

By Anastasia Efimova

The recent announcement of the Trump administration about the possible return to the explosive nuclear testing has bewildered the international community. The decision to conduct a nuclear test explosion, which Washington has not undertaken since 1992, would reverse a decades-long moratorium on nuclear tests and challenge global peace and security.

So far, no other nuclear-armed state conducted tests since 1998, except North Korea. The U.S. return to the nuclear tests will have far-reaching irreversible implications, jeopardizing the nuclear non-proliferation regime and giving more incentives for the other nuclear-weapon the states to follow suit and thus spark the unconstraint arms race.

Reasons Behind Resuming Nuclear Tests

The issue came up at the meeting with national security agencies on 15 May and provoked clashes between the U.S. officials. Some considerations prevail among the senior officials that the discussions around the resuming underground testing are rather a political move than a technical one. In the context of ongoing discussions about the strategic nuclear arms control framework, the affirmation to rapidly resume nuclear testing can serve as a bargaining chip. Since the time is running short for deciding the future of the fundamental New Strategic Arms Control Treaty, and China keeps staying distant from joining the U.S. – Russia disarmament framework, the Trump administration is presumably using this leverage to bring China to negotiating table on trilateral arms control treaty.

In part, the considerations to resume testing can be motivated by the alleged low-yield nuclear tests undertaken by Russia and China in the violation of the zero-yield principle established by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996, which bans all nuclear experiments producing an explosive yield. These allegations were outlined in the U.S. State Department’s annual report, which assessed countries’ compliance with arms control agreements.

The CTBT is at Stake

According to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the “readiness” to conduct a nuclear test within six to ten months once the decision to return to nuclear testing is taken by the president, which will violate the international norm and undermine the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Before 1996 five countries have carried out more than 2,000 nuclear tests, of which more than 1,000 were conducted by the United States between 1945 and 1992. And only 14 tests have been conducted since the CTBT was opened for signature in September 1996.

As of today, the CTBT has 184 signatories but has not yet entered into force due to the failure of all the nuclear-capable states to sign and ratify the Treaty.

In fact, the United States was one of the first to sign in 1996 but the U.S. Senate never ratified the treaty due to the uncertainties about the maintenance of the nuclear arsenal reliability and monitoring the other states’ compliance with the treaty. Nevertheless, Washington has been committed to the moratorium on conducting nuclear tests and so far, has been the biggest financial contributor to the CTBTO and its verification regime.

Breach on the moratorium on nuclear testing is highly unlikely to add to the safety and reliability of the nuclear stockpile as its capability can be checked through nuclear tests modelling without producing a nuclear yield due to the Stockpile Stewardship Program. While the verification regime forged by the CTBT through its International Monitoring System is able to detect underground, underwater, and atmospheric nuclear explosions and thus ensures monitoring of the states’ compliance with the treaty, which rules out any reasoning for not ratifying the treaty due to the other states’ non-compliance concerns.

Despite the former U.S. President Barak Obama’s affirmations regarding the intention to pursue the treaty’s ratification, the Trump administration clearly stated in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review that the United States would not seek ratification of the CTBT. Nevertheless, the country has supported the activities of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization. The demise of the near-global moratorium on nuclear tests created by the CTBT in the aftermath of the U.S. decision to resume testing will have far-reaching destabilizing consequences for the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime.

Implications of Resuming Nuclear Tests

An attempt of the Trump administration to seek political leverage in the context of nuclear arms negotiations and consolidate the disarmament regime through dragging China into strategic arms talks is likely to have an opposite outcome through triggering a chain reaction and inciting the other nuclear-weapons states to resume testing.  Considering that China has conducted 45 tests, compared to the 1,030 U.S. tests, Washington’s decision might spur the other nuclear-weapon states, including China itself, to test more sophisticated weapons designs. Other nuclear-armed states, such as India and Pakistan, which both conducted nuclear tests in 1998, could likewise consider resuming such activities pointing on the U.S. as the first to break the nuclear test moratorium.

Among the other side effects of resuming nuclear testing and the subsequent demise of the CTBT can be the disruption of the negotiations with North Korea about its nuclear program, which will rule out any possibility of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Shortly after Trump administration announced the readiness to set off a nuclear test explosion, Pyongyang has discussed the policies on increasing its nuclear war deterrence. With the U.S. considering the return to nuclear tests, North Korea will no longer feel compelled to adhere to the tests moratorium.

Conclusion

In the light of a series of insecurities and disarrays, which have jeopardized the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime over the past years, including the U.S. stepping back from the accord with Iran, the uncertainties around the New START future, the demise of the INF Treaty, the discussions about the U.S. pulling out of the nuclear test ban regime might be the last straw preventing from heading down to a new nuclear arms race.

The U.S. breach of the nuclear tests moratorium will erode another fundamental norm, which has endorsed the non-proliferation regime for decades. It is highly unlikely that resuming nuclear tests and slipping back into nuclear brinkmanship will result in political concessions. Instead, it is likely to backfire through opening the door to the other nuclear-armed states to respond in kind and, hereby, kick off a new nuclear arms race. The very consideration of resuming nuclear tests with all their subsequent environmental and health consequences, exposing people and the environment to the deadliest radioactive fallout, should be ruled out.

References

Webb G. (June 2020), ‘Trump Officials Consider Nuclear Testing’. Arms Control Association. Available at: https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2020-06/news/trump-officials-consider-nuclear-testing [Accessed 26 June 2020]

Arms Control Association (2019), ‘Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at a Glance’. Available at: https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/test-ban-treaty-at-a-glance [Accessed 23 June 2020]

Hudson J., Sonne P. (May 2020), ‘Trump administration discussed conducting first U.S. nuclear test in decades’. [Online]  The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/trump-administration-discussed-conducting-first-us-nuclear-test-in-decades/2020/05/22/a805c904-9c5b-11ea-b60c-3be060a4f8e1_story.html [Accessed 24 June 2020]

Borger J. (May 2020), ‘Nuclear watchdog says any US test would be ‘grave challenge to peace’. [Online]  The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/28/nuclear-watchdog-us-underground-test-challenge-to-peace [Accessed 20 June 2020]

Arms Control Association (June 2020), ‘Reaction to White House Nuclear Testing Proposal Strongly Negative’, Issue briefs. Available at: https://www.armscontrol.org/issue-briefs/2020-06/reaction-white-house-nuclear-testing-proposal-strongly-negative [Accessed 24 June 2020]

Klare T. Michael, Kimball G. Daryl (June 2020), ‘Keep nuclear testing off the table’. [Online]  The Boston Globe. Available at: https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/06/13/opinion/keep-nuclear-testing-off-table/ [Accessed 22 June 2020]

Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban-Treaty Organization, ‘Status of Signature and Ratification’. Available at: https://www.ctbto.org/the-treaty/status-of-signature-and-ratification/ [Accessed 29 June 2020]

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