Amid China and Russia tensions, US considering nuclear tests after 28 years hiatus

US officials have debated whether to carry out the first US nuclear tests in 28 years as a way to pressure Russia and China into make a trilateral arms control deal, according congressional aides and former officials learned GDC citing Washington Post.

The US has accused both Russia and China of carrying out very low-yield tests in secret.

Chinese nuclear tests site where China conducted low yield nuclear test last month.

Top security agency officials said to hold talks on possible test ahead of negotiations with Beijing and Moscow over weapons treaty.

A senior administration official and two former officials familiar with the discussions said the suggestion was raised at a May 15 meeting of top security agency officials after the Trump administration accused Russia and China of carrying out low-yield nuclear tests. Beijing and Moscow have denied the accusations.

An unnamed official told the newspaper that it was suggested a test could be helpful to Washington’s negotiating position as the US begins new nuclear arms control talks with the Kremlin aimed at replacing an expiring weapons treaty with a modern and potentially three-way accord that brings China into the fold.

This June 29, 2011 file photo shows the Los Alamos Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

The US has not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, known as the CTBT, which has 196 member states — 183 that have signed the treaty and 164 that have ratified it.

The treaty has not entered into force because it still needs ratification by eight countries that had nuclear power reactors or research reactors when the UN General Assembly adopted it in 1996: the United States, China, Iran, Israel, Egypt, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

The reported deliberations came days before US President Donald Trump said that Russian violations make it untenable for the US to stay in a treaty that permits 30-plus nations to conduct observation flights over each other’s territory, but he hinted it’s possible the US will reconsider the decision to withdraw.

They said the discussion took place at a “deputies meeting” of senior national security officials at the White House on 15 May, but that the proposal was shelved for the time being.

The discussion was first reported on Friday night by the Washington Post, which cited a senior administration official as saying that a demonstration to Moscow and Beijing that the United States could carry out a “rapid test” could be a useful bargaining counter in the achieving the administration’s priority on arms control – a trilateral deal with Russia and China.

The deputies committee discussion has come at a time when arms control is in danger of dying out altogether. The Trump administration has pulled out of three arms control agreements, the latest this week with an announcement that the US will withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which allows the Russia and western nations to conduct observation overflights of each other’s territories.

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The last major arms control treaty left standing is the 2010 New Start agreement, limiting US and Russian deployed strategic warheads. It is due to expire in February next year but the Trump administration has said it does not want to extend it without bringing China into arms control negotiations. Beijing has refused, on the grounds that its stockpile is tiny compared with the US and Russian arsenals.

The apparent motive behind the proposal to resume US testing was somehow to add pressure on China.

“They discussed underground testing in the context of trying to bring China to the table for the trilateral agreement,” a former official said. “Among the professionals in the administration, the idea was dismissed as unworkable and dumb. The NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] is definitely not on board. And it seemed like that state [department] wasn’t on board either.”

The US, and the four other officially recognised nuclear weapons powers, signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996, but the Senate voted not to ratify the treaty, which still does not have enough ratifications to enter into force.

The US has observed a moratorium on testing since 1992, in line with other nuclear powers. Breaking that moratorium could doom the CTBT, and prove destabilising at a time when there are fears of a new arms race.

“I’ve heard officials speculate the US might have to test if confidence in the stockpile eroded, but never that it could be used to coerce anyone into negotiations,” Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists, said.

The NNSA, an agency of the energy department, has the job of maintaining the readiness of the US nuclear arsenal, and has developed computer diagnostic tools to check the state of the warheads, drawing on data from the 1,054 tests the US carried out between 1945 and 1992.

“By and large, the scientists and engineers and the nuclear weapons enterprise have been very satisfied with that approach,” said Frank Klotz, who served as NNSA administrator in the Obama administration and the first year of the Trump administration.

Each year, the heads of the three US nuclear weapons laboratories – Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia – as well as the head of US Strategic Command, are required to certify that a resumption of testing is not needed.

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