Should there be legislative greenlighting necessary for nuclear weapons testing, which is currently controlled by the executive branch?
In May, the Washington Post revealed that Trump administration officials have discussed the possibility of conducting the first U.S. nuclear test explosion since September 1992. While the administration later clarified in June that they won’t carry out any such test “at this time,” they didn’t provide a quantified timetable — and the administration still has two months left.
While the U.S. had carried out 1,030 such tests during the Cold War, the government established a moratorium after 1992. However, that policy could always be changed or halted by any president. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty — which would officially and indefinitely bind countries to cease nuclear tests — has been ratified by 168 nations but 28 have not ratified, including the U.S.
President Bill Clinton signed the treaty in 1996, but a 1999 Senate ratification under Republican control failed by 48 to 51. In 2016, the Senate held their first hearing on the treaty since 1999, but the Republican-led chamber did not ultimately vote on whether to ratify that time around, against the wishes of President Barack Obama who sought Senate ratification.
What the legislation does
The No Nuclear Testing Without Approval Act would mandate congressional approval before the U.S. conducts any nuclear test.
The Senate version was introduced on June 29 as bill number S. 4099, by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV). The House version was introduced three months later on September 22 as bill number H.R. 8342, by Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV4).
What supporters say
Supporters argue that resuming nuclear tests after decades would pose safety and health risks — or, worst case scenario, start an arms race.
“The Secretaries of Defense and Energy have reported to the President that the U.S. stockpile is safe, secure, and effective in the absence of nuclear testing,” Rep. Horsford said in a press release. “Restarting nuclear testing is unnecessary and would have far-reaching consequences on Nevada’s environment and the health and safety of my constituents.”
“The decision to conduct an explosive nuclear test should not be made without congressional approval, and should never be made by a president hoping to gain political points,” Sen. Cortez Masto said in a separate press release. “The [legislation] would require Congressional approval for any future testing and ensure that the decision to conduct tests is based only on technical need or a threat to national security.
What opponents say
Opponents counter that resuming nuclear testing could prove a helpful gambit as the U.S. negotiates in current nuclear treaty negotiations with Russia and China, the other largest nuclear superpowers.
The original Washington Post report that broke the story quoted an anonymous senior administration official who said that “demonstrating to Moscow and Beijing that the United States could ‘rapid test’ could prove useful from a negotiating standpoint as Washington seeks a trilateral deal to regulate the arsenals of the biggest nuclear powers.”
Odds of passage
The House version has attracted four cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in either the House Armed Services or Rules Committee.
The Senate version has attracted two cosponsors, both Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The lead House and Senate both represent Nevada, which makes sense considering that it’s one of five states where the U.S. has ever conducted nuclear tests, along with Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico, and Mississippi. Considering that this legislation would probably affect only those five states, and likely not even all five, it’s unclear whether there’s a sufficient geographic diversity of support.
As a senator in 1999, President-Elect Joe Biden voted to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, meaning that he would presumably be unlikely to greenlight any nuclear tests as president. Two months still remain for it to occur during the Trump presidency, though.