Any reason for Trump to resume nuclear tests upwind from Utah? Just political ones, expert says

(AP file photo) A gigantic pillar of smoke with the familiar mushroom top climbs above Yucca Flat, Nev. during a nuclear test detonation on April 22, 1952. As the testing program continued, detonations were moved underground, although some leaked radiation into the atmosphere.

When she was director of Sandia National Laboratories, Jill Hruby was among officials who each year certified whether the nation’s nuclear stockpile was safe and reliable. She sees only one reason now for the Trump administration proposals to resume explosive nuclear weapons testing.

“If nuclear testing were resumed at this point, I believe it would be driven by political, not technical reasons,” she said Thursday in an online roundtable organized by Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah.

McAdams is trying to block funding in Congress to resume such testing at the Nevada Test Site, which led to cancer in victims downwind in Utah — for which Congress in 1990 apologized and allowed compensation in some areas.

Hruby — who is now a fellow with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which works to prevent nuclear catastrophes — said there would be three sound scientific reasons to justify resuming explosion testing: examining the performance of aging weapons; validating the behavior of new plutonium spheres that are the heart of such weapons; and collecting data on new weapon designs.

“None of these reasons are compelling at this time since these issues are all being explored in the science-based stewardship program without testing,” Hruby said. She adds that program has invested heavily in powerful computers, computer modeling and subcritical nuclear tests that combine for results in which scientists have confidence.

She sees resuming tests as causing far more problems than it might help to solve.

First, it will divert money away from the current nonexplosion work — where she believes the United States has a big lead over other nations that could not afford its complexity and lack the wealth of data America has from past testing.

She said test resumption could also trigger more testing by many nations and allow others to catch up — and to encourage nuclear proliferation among some countries that don’t know have these weapons.

“If the United State resumes nuclear testing, it will incentivize other nations to resume testing as well,” Hruby said. “Other existing nuclear powers would not want to be seen as unable to test or unable to send a message that their weapons work.”

Additionally, she said, “Aspiring or nascent nuclear weapons states may choose to advance their programs at a time when nuclear testing is not seen is unacceptable.”

In short, Hruby said, “The potential political cost and actual cost for testing is higher than the benefit, in my opinion.”

McAdams said he opposes resumption of any testing including those that are underground because many of them leaked and also spread radiation clouds downwind to Utah.

McAdams passed a House amendment to a defense bill this year that would block spending to restart or prepare for new testing. However, a Senate version of the bill contains such spending. House and Senate negotiators eventually will try to reach compromise on the issue.

McAdams has made his opposition to renewed nuclear testing a top campaign issue as he seeks reelection in a district where he won by fewer than 700 votes two years ago.

He is running a television ad attacking his opponent, Republican Burgess Owens, for supporting such testing.

When asked earlier this year on K-TALK if he supported Trump’s proposal, Owens said, “Absolutely. … I will support everything that President Trump is doing in that arena.” He added, “Yes, I will be supporting our president because he supports our country … and he just needs some backbone in the House and Senate” to help him on such issues.

On Thursday, Owens spokesperson Jesse Ranney said, “Democrat Ben McAdams is engaging in deceptive fearmongering while playing politics with our health and safety. That is unseemly. We need real leadership in Washington and Ben’s actions show he is not the leader Utah needs.”