By W.J. HENNIGAN
Since 1993, the Department of Energy has had to be ready to conduct a nuclear test within two to three years if ordered by the President. Late last year, the Trump Administration ordered the department to be ready, for the first time, to conduct a short-notice nuclear test in as little as six months.That is not enough time to install the warhead in shafts as deep as 4,000 ft. and affix all the proper technical instrumentation and diagnostics equipment. But the purpose of such a detonation, which the Administration labels “a simple test, with waivers and simplified processes,” would not be to ensure that the nation’s most powerful weapons were in operational order, or to check whether a new type of warhead worked, a TIME review of nuclear-policy documents has found. Rather, a National Nuclear Security Administration official tells TIME, such a test would be “conducted for political purposes.”
The point, this and other sources say, would be to show Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Iran’s Ayatullah Ali Khamenei and other adversaries what they are up against.
The Trump Administration, by contrast, is convinced that the best way to limit the spreading nuclear danger is to expand and advertise its ability to annihilate its enemies. In addition to putting the Nevada testing ground on notice, he has signed off on a $1.2 trillion plan to overhaul the entire nuclear-weapons complex. Trump has authorized a new nuclear warhead, the first in 34 years. He is funding research and development on a mobile medium-range missile. The new weapon, if tested or deployed, would be prohibited by a 30-year-old Cold War nuclear-forces agreement with Russia (which has already violated the agreement). And for the first time, the U.S. is expanding the scenarios under which the President would consider going nuclear to “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” including major cyberattacks.[…] Trump has criticized New START, which reduces and limits nuclear arms in the U.S. and Russia, as a bad deal. He has repeatedly questioned the multilateral deal under which Iran suspended its nuclear program, and promised to decertify it in May if changes aren’t made. He has publicly undermined Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s diplomatic talks aimed at denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, instead warning North Korea about his “much bigger & more powerful” nuclear button. “The long-standing strategic policy of the United States has been to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons,” says Andrew Weber, who spent 30 years on nuclear-weapons issues in the State and Defense departments before retiring in 2015. “That idea seems to have been balled up and thrown out the window.”