Donald Trump says nuclear arsenal is now 'in tippy-top shape'

Trump in talks to conduct first US nuclear test in decades

Official says demonstrating to Moscow and Beijing that US can rapid test will prove useful for negotiating

Paul Sonne,John Hudson
Saturday 23 May 2020 14:32
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The Trump administration has discussed whether to conduct the first US nuclear test explosion since 1992 in a move that would have far-reaching consequences for relations with other nuclear powers and reverse a decades-long moratorium on such actions, said a senior administration official and two former officials familiar with the deliberations.

The matter came up at a meeting of senior officials representing the top national security agencies last Friday, following accusations from administration officials that Russia and China are conducting low-yield nuclear tests – an assertion that has not been substantiated by publicly available evidence and that both countries have denied.

A senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive nuclear discussions, said that demonstrating to Moscow and Beijing that the US could “rapid test” could prove useful from a negotiating standpoint as Washington seeks a trilateral deal to regulate the arsenals of the biggest nuclear powers.

The meeting did not conclude with any agreement to conduct a test, but a senior administration official said the proposal is “very much an ongoing conversation”. Another person familiar with the meeting, however, said a decision was ultimately made to take other measures in response to threats posed by Russia and China and avoid a resumption of testing.

The National Security Council declined to comment.

During the meeting, serious disagreements emerged over the idea, in particular from the National Nuclear Security Administration, according to two people familiar with the discussions. The NNSA, an agency that ensures the safety of the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, did not respond to a request for comment.

The US has not conducted a nuclear test explosion since September 1992, and nuclear nonproliferation advocates warned that doing so now could have destabilising consequences.

“It would be an invitation for other nuclear-armed countries to follow suit,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “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.”

The US remains the only country to have deployed a nuclear weapon during wartime, but since 1945 at least eight countries have collectively conducted about 2,000 nuclear tests, of which more than 1,000 were carried out by the US.

The environmental and health-related consequences of nuclear testing moved the process underground, eventually leading to a near-global moratorium on testing in 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, an agreement that will not enter into force until ratified by eight key states, including the US.

Barack Obama supported the ratification of the CTBT in 2009 but never realised his goal. The Trump administration said it would not seek ratification in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

Still, the major nuclear powers abide by its core prohibition on testing. But the US in recent months has alleged Russia and China have violated the “zero yield” standard with extremely low-yield or underground tests, not the type of many-kiloton yield tests with mushroom clouds associated with the Cold War. Russia and China deny the allegation.

Since establishing a moratorium on testing in the early 1990s, the US has ensured that its nuclear weapons are ready to be deployed by conducting what are known as subcritical tests – or blasts that do not produce a nuclear chain reaction but can test components of a weapon.

US nuclear weapons facilities have also developed robust computer simulation technologies that allow for modelling of nuclear tests to ensure the arsenal is ready to deploy.

The Trump administration has been pushing to negotiate a follow-on agreement that includes China in addition to Russia, but China has rejected calls for talks so far

The main purpose of nuclear tests has long been to check the reliability of an existing arsenal or try out new weapon designs. Every year, top US officials, including the heads of the national nuclear labs and the commander of US Strategic Command, must certify the safety and reliability of the stockpile without testing. The Trump administration has said that, unlike Russia and China, it is not pursuing new nuclear weapons but reserves the right to do so if the two countries refuse to negotiate on their programmes.

The deliberations over a nuclear test explosion come as the Trump administration prepares to leave the Treaty on Open Skies, a nearly 30-year-old pact that came into force in 2002 and was designed to reduce the chances of an accidental war by allowing mutual reconnaissance flights for members of the 34-country agreement.

The planned withdrawal marks another example of the erosion of a global arms-control framework that Washington and Moscow began hashing out painstakingly during the Cold War. The Trump administration pulled out of a 1987 pact with Russia governing intermediate-range missiles, citing violations by Moscow, and withdrew from a 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, saying Tehran was not living up to the spirit of it.

The primary remaining pillar of the arms-control framework between the US and Russia is the New START pact, which places limits on strategic nuclear platforms.

The Trump administration has been pushing to negotiate a follow-on agreement that includes China in addition to Russia, but China has rejected calls for talks so far.

Mr Trump’s presidential envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, warned that China is in the “midst” of a major buildup of its nuclear arsenal and “intent on building up its nuclear forces and using those forces to try to intimidate the United States and our friends and allies”.

One US official said a nuclear test could help pressure the Chinese into joining a trilateral agreement with the US and Russia, but some nonproliferation advocates say such a move is risky.

“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,” Mr Kimball said.

The Washington Post

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