The case came up at a meeting of senior officials representing the top national security agencies last Friday, after accusations from administration officials that Russia and China are carrying out low-yield nuclear tests – a claim not supported by publicly available evidence and that both countries have refused.
A senior official who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive nuclear discussions, said that demonstration to Moscow and Beijing that the United States could “speed test”
The meeting did not conclude with any agreement to conduct a test, but a senior official said the proposal is “very much an ongoing conversation.” However, another person familiar with the meeting said that ultimately a decision was made to take other measures in response to threats from Russia and China and to avoid re-testing.
The National Security Council declined to comment.
During the meeting, serious disagreements about the idea arose, especially from the National Nuclear Security Administration, according to two people familiar with the discussions. The NNSA, an agency that ensures the security of the country’s nuclear weapons storage, did not respond to a request for comment.
The United States has not conducted a nuclear explosion since September 1992, and nuclear proliferation advocates warned that it could now have destabilizing consequences.
“It would be an invitation for other nuclear armed countries to follow,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “It would be the launching gun for an unprecedented nuclear arms race. You will also disrupt negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who may no longer feel compelled to honor his moratorium on nuclear testing. “
The United States is still the only country to have deployed a nuclear weapon in wartime, but since 1945 at least eight countries have conducted around 2,000 nuclear tests, of which more than 1,000 were conducted by the United States.
The environmental and health consequences of nuclear testing moved the process underground, eventually leading to an almost global moratorium on testing this century, with the exception of North Korea. Concerns about the dangers of testing prompted more than 184 nations to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a deal that only comes into force before being ratified by eight key states, including the United States.
President Barack Obama supported the ratification of the CTBT in 2009, but never achieved its goal. The Trump administration said it would not request ratification in its 2018 Nuclear Attitude Review.
Still, the major nuclear forces are complying with its central ban on testing. But the United States in recent months has claimed that Russia and China have violated the “zero yield” standard with extremely low or underground testing, not the type of many kilotonnet yield tests with mushroom clouds associated with the Cold War. Russia and China deny the allegation.
Since the establishment of a moratorium on testing in the early 1990s, the United States has ensured its nuclear weapons are ready to be deployed by conducting so-called subcritical tests – blasts that do not produce a nuclear chain reaction but can test components of a weapon.
U.S. nuclear weapons facilities have also developed robust computer simulation technologies that allow for the modeling of nuclear tests to ensure that the arsenal is ready to be deployed.
The main purpose of nuclear tests has long been to check the reliability of an existing arsenal or try new weapon designs. Each year, top U.S. officials, including the heads of the National Nuclear Laboratories and the Chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, must confirm the stock’s security and reliability 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 the two countries refuse to negotiate on their programs.
Discussions about a nuclear test explosion come as the Trump administration prepares to exit the Open Sky Treaty, a nearly 30-year-old pact that went into effect in 2002 and was designed to reduce the chances of an accidental war by allowing mutual reconnaissance aircraft for members of the agreement with 34 countries.
The planned withdrawal marks another example of the erosion of a global arms control framework that Washington and Moscow began to rush out quickly during the Cold War. The Trump administration withdrew from a 1987 pact with Russia that ruled medium-range missiles, citing Moscow violations and withdrew from a 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, saying Tehran did not live up to its spirit.
The primary remaining pillar of the United States-Russia arms control framework is the new START pact that sets strategic nuclear platform boundaries.
The Trump administration has been pushing to negotiate a subsequent deal that includes China beyond Russia, but China has rejected calls for talks so far.
Trump’s presidential envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, warned that China is “in the midst of” a major build-up of its nuclear arsenal and “intent on building its nuclear forces and using those forces to try to intimidate the United States and our friends and allies. “
A US official said a nuclear test could help pressure the Chinese to enter into a trilateral agreement with the United States and Russia, but some non-proliferation advocates say such a move is risky.
“If this administration thinks that a nuclear test explosion and nuclear brinkmanship will force negotiating partners to file unilateral concessions, it’s a dangerous ploy,” Kimball said.
An earlier version of this story should have said that about 2,000 nuclear tests have been conducted since 1945, no more than 8,000.