US security officials 'considered return to nuclear testing' after 28-year hiatus

Julian Borger in Washington

US officials have debated whether to carry out the first US nuclear tests in 28 years as a way to pressure Russia and China into make a trilateral arms control deal, according congressional aides and former officials.

They said the discussion took place at a “deputies meeting” of senior national security officials at the White House on 15 May, but that the proposal was shelved for the time being.

“There are still some professionals in the room who told them this is a terrible idea, thank God,” a congressional aide said.

The discussion was first reported on Friday night by the Washington Post, which cited a senior administration official as saying that a demonstration to Moscow and Beijing that the United States could carry out a “rapid test” could be a useful bargaining counter in the achieving the administration’s priority on arms control – a trilateral deal with Russia and China.

The report also quoted a senior administration official as saying the proposal was “very much an ongoing conversation”.

Related: Trump to pull US out of third arms control deal

The deputies committee discussion has come at a time when arms control is in danger of dying out altogether. The Trump administration has pulled out of three arms control agreements, the latest this week with an announcement that the US will withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which allows the Russia and western nations to conduct observation overflights of each other’s territories.

The last major arms control treaty left standing is the 2010 New Start agreement, limiting US and Russian deployed strategic warheads. It is due to expire in February next year but the Trump administration has said it does not want to extend it without bringing China into arms control negotiations. Beijing has refused, on the grounds that its stockpile is tiny compared with the US and Russian arsenals (estimated at just over a twentieth of the size).

The apparent motive behind the proposal to resume US testing was somehow to add pressure on China.

“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.”

The US, and the four other officially recognised nuclear weapons powers, signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996, but the Senate voted not to ratify the treaty, which still does not have enough ratifications to enter into force.

The US has observed a moratorium on testing since 1992, in line with other nuclear powers. Breaking that moratorium could doom the CTBT, and prove destabilising at a time when there are fears of a new arms race.

“I’ve heard officials speculate the US might have to test if confidence in the stockpile eroded, but never that it could be used to coerce anyone into negotiations,” Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists, said.

“That’s completely nuts. They must be getting desperate. Instead, what it certainly would do is push China and all the other nuclear-armed states to test as well. How can someone in their right mind think that would be in the security interest of the United States or its allies?”

The US has accused both Russia and China of carrying out very low-yield tests in secret, but both countries have denied the accusations.

The NNSA, an agency of the energy department, has the job of maintaining the readiness of the US nuclear arsenal, and has developed computer diagnostic tools to check the state of the warheads, drawing on data from the 1,054 tests the US carried out between 1945 and 1992.

“By and large, the scientists and engineers and the nuclear weapons enterprise have been very satisfied with that approach,” said Frank Klotz, who served as NNSA administrator in the Obama administration and the first year of the Trump administration.

Each year, the heads of the three US nuclear weapons laboratories – Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia – as well as the head of US Strategic Command, are required to certify that a resumption of testing is not needed.

“They have said that they see no technical reason to resume testing for the foreseeable future. And that was the statement that was made when I left,” Klotz, a retired air force lieutenant general, said. “Whether that’s changed or not I don’t know. I doubt it, quite frankly.”

“There are veterans of the era in which we did do testing ... who have advocated for a return to testing, but I think the vast majority of the people in the enterprise feel like it’s not necessary, and should only be done if there is some compelling technical problem.”