An expert on nuclear weapons warned the United States is rapidly losing the ability to conduct underground nuclear tests due to a lack of essential infrastructure and personnel.
John C. Hopkins, the former head of nuclear testing at Los Alamos who was involved in five atmospheric tests in the Pacific and 170 tests in Nevada from the 1960s to the 1980s, expressed concerns over the slowly degrading ability of the U.S. to test nuclear weapons.
“Because I know something about the skills, equipment, facilities, and infrastructure necessary to field a full-scale nuclear test, I have grown increasingly concerned at the steady degradation of U.S. nuclear test readiness—that is, the capability of the United States to test its nuclear weapons should the need to do so arise,” he said in an article from the Los Alamos newsletter.
Hopkins highlighted the lack of personnel with nuclear testing experience as the most serious threat to the United States in the event of a national emergency.
“With every day that passes, the United States grows more out of practice and out of resources —including the most important resource: people with experience—that are critical to nuclear testing.”
The U.S. halted large nuclear tests in 1992 and formally issued a moratorium on all nuclear testing after signing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996. The treaty was signed and adopted informally despite the Senate never ratifying it, a step required of all treaties under the Constitution.
The Limited Test Ban Treaty, signed in 1963, bans nuclear tests in the atmosphere, oceans, and outer space, while the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, signed in 1974, limits tests to a maximum yield of 150 kilotons of TNT.
Due to the rapid aging of America’s nuclear arsenal, Hopkins expressed doubts over the government’s ability to resume nuclear testing in two or three years as required under a presidential directive signed by President Bill Clinton.
PDD-15, signed in 1993, states that the Energy Department must formulate a plan to “protect the capability to resume U.S. nuclear testing.”
“Under a CTB, keeping a viable infrastructure and staff at the Nevada Test Site, the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons laboratories and the Defense Nuclear Agency will be a fundamental requirement to retain the capability to resume nuclear test activities,” the directive said.
“Because the U.S. has little left from its previous test program, and essentially no test-readiness program, the time delay following the decision to resume testing—because of a loss of confidence in the stockpile or to a geopolitical crisis—would, in my opinion, be dangerously long,” Hopkins continued. “Let’s not wait to find out how long.”
President Donald Trump has argued the U.S. is falling behind other countries in nuclear capability.
“I am the first one that would like to see … nobody have nukes, but we’re never going to fall behind any country even if it’s a friendly country, we’re never going to fall behind on nuclear power,” he said in an interview with Reuters. “It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.”
China recently announced the successful testing of a new intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying ten MIRVs (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles).
In addition to constructing and deploying new aircraft, missiles, and submarines capable of delivering nuclear weapons, Russia has modernized its arsenal of low-yield nuclear weapons suitable for use in more localized conflicts.