Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee, the Republican candidates for Bob Bennett's U.S. Senate seat, say they support the resumption of underground nuclear testing in Nevada, either to verify the reliability of the existing arsenal or to develop new weapons. But Utah's deadly history as a downwind victim of fallout from previous nuclear tests argues for a much more cautious approach to any resumption of testing.
First, it is not necessary to resume test explosions to verify the safety, security and reliability of existing nuclear weapons. That was the conclusion of a panel of the National Academy of Sciences in 2002. It has since been confirmed by the JASON group of independent scientific advisers that consults with the U.S. government on defense issues.
The United States has a Stockpile Stewardship Program that maintains its nuclear weapons and makes sure they will perform if needed. It replaces weapons parts and assures that the specifications for those replacement parts are not altered in ways that could affect the weapons' reliability as they are refurbished over time. Last year, a JASON study concluded that "the lifetimes to today's nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence," so long as this approach to maintenance is followed.
It is true, however, that the National Academy of Sciences report also concluded that new weapons designs cannot be developed and certified as reliable, to the degree they have been in the past, without new nuclear tests. However, a resumption of test explosions by the United States could lead to a cascade of tests by other nations. If that were to happen, the attempt by the United States to develop new weapons designs actually could result in a narrowing of the technological lead that this nation has now. Put another way, the advantages of new testing to the United States do not justify the risks of nuclear proliferation and development that an end to the current testing moratorium would create internationally.
That, in a nutshell, is the rationale for why the U.S. Senate should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that was completed in 1996 and signed by President Clinton. The Senate failed to ratify it in 1999, but it should take up the treaty again. The United States has observed a testing moratorium since 1992.
Even if that treaty were to go into force, the United States would have an out. If it discovers that it could no longer be certain of the reliability of its existing weapons, or if it determines that it should develop new weapons designs that require testing, it could withdraw from the treaty.