Return of Nevada nukes?

Some call for renewed testing

This is a photo of subsidence craters, caused by underground nuclear tests in Nevada.

This is a photo of subsidence craters, caused by underground nuclear tests in Nevada.


Donald Trump’s talk and tweets of upgrading U.S. nuclear arms and possibly restarting the arms race raises the issue of whether nuclear testing in Nevada could return.

“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Dec. 22.

Trump’s stance would be an extreme change in U.S. policy if he carried it out in the White House. It came after Russian leader Vladimir Putin talked of beefing up his country’s nuclear arsenal, which in turn followed plans for expanding NATO troops.

U.S. Sen Harry Reid said, “When I came to Congress, I learned that we have too many nuclear weapons. So I was elated when then-president Reagan made peace with Gorbachev, and since there has been a steady reduction of arms. It would be awful for Putin and President-elect Trump to engage in who can build the most weapons.”

But others leapt to support renewed development and testing of nuclear weapons.

“Most importantly, immediately resume underground nuclear testing, non-existent since 1992,” wrote retired Navy vice admiral and former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency Robert Monroe on Dec. 23 in the Capitol Hill newspaper the Hill, soon after Trump’s comments were reported. Monroe had already published a piece in Investors Business Daily: “The Energy Department must immediately resume nuclear testing to ensure our overage stockpile is still reliable and effective after a 24-year test moratorium.”

Sen. Reid also said, “We must make sure the weapons we have are safe and reliable and if necessary they are renovated and repaired.” That echoes what some of the retired military and other figures who are calling for a resumption of testing say. In October, physicist Steven Koonin wrote in a Wall Street Journal essay that “the condition of our nuclear weapons and heir reliability in the years ahead” are at issue as they age and as the technology evolves and advances.

The Trump tweet sent tremors through the foreign policy and nuclear weapons establishment and rattled U.S. allies. His aides quickly put out their own statements explaining what Trump really meant, but the dispute prompted news stories like the Chicago Tribune’s “Could Trump start a nuclear war with a single tweet?”

“It requires a lot of thought and a lot of study and Twitter, with 140 characters, probably doesn’t lend itself to the best discussion of this issue,” former U.S. ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns told CBS News.

Middlebury Institute of International Studies scholar Jeffrey Lewis, author of The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China’s Search for Security in the Nuclear Age, said it might be a good idea to ban Trump from using Twitter in tense situations.

Local reaction?

President Obama has already planned expenditures of up to a trillion dollars for upgrading U.S. weapons systems, which would give the U.S. the maximum arms allowable under nuclear agreements. It’s not known whether Trump knew of these budget plans.

The Nevada Test Site, now called the Nevada National Security Site and originally the Nevada Proving Ground, was established in 1951. It takes up more than 1,300 square miles, some of which is uninhabitable for humans for 24,000 years as a result of more than 900 nuclear tests at the site. One additional device was exploded off the site, in Churchill County.

A comprehensive test ban brought testing to an end at the site n 1992, but that treaty has never been ratified by the Senate. Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution wrote last week, “While the Senate has not consented to CTBT ratification, no one seriously calls for a resumption of U.S. nuclear tests. Mr. Trump might want to ask his friends in Las Vegas—60 miles from the former Nevada Test Site and with a population nearly triple what it was in 1992, the year of the last U.S. nuclear test—how they would feel about it. Recall that Nevada fought tooth-and-nail against even storage of nuclear waste at the site.”

Given that Las Vegas casinos once also marketed nuclear tests as a tourist attraction, there are no guarantees on local reaction.

The moratorium on nuclear testing was the product of decades of work. Russia and the United States under both Republican and Democratic presidents joined in limiting and then reducing nuclear arms, both in their numbers and their power.

On July 14, 1992, former president Jimmy Carter said, “The world is concerned about nuclear proliferation. Here again, the United States is the major obstacle to a worldwide comprehensive test ban. Our threats against Pakistan, North Korea, Iraq, and Libya have a somewhat hollow ring when our Western deserts still shake with nuclear explosions.”

In a 2006 interview with the News & Review, Carter said, “I would be strongly opposed to any sort of nuclear testing in Nevada. In fact, I would be strongly opposed to any nuclear testing, period. We have a comprehensive nuclear test ban which should be prevailing.”

After Trump’s tweet, his aide Jason Miller said Trump “was referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it—particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes.”