By John Hudson and Paul Sonne
The Trump administration has discussed whether to conduct the first U.S. 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 May 15, 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.
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, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The United States 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 United States.
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 United States.
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 U.S. officials, including the heads of the national nuclear labs and the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, must certify the safety and reliability of the stockpile without testing. The Trump administration has said that, unlike Russia and China, it isn’t pursuing new nuclear weapons but reserves the right to do so if the two countries refuse to negotiate on their programs.
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.
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