The weapon is lowered into the earth before the last nuclear test in Nevada in September 1992.

The results of the election have preserved the status quo on the defunct project to build a dump for high level nuclear wastes in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. But another nuclear issue threatens to intrude in the Silver State—revival of nuclear testing.

Conservative defense strategists say the U.S. needs to “update” its nuclear arsenal. They complain that under current policy, whether the U.S. develops a new generation of weapons depends not on U.S. security interests but on the actions of other nations.

Though the U.S. Senate never approved the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the nation has been in effective compliance with it as a matter of policy. Congress ordered a nine-month halt to testing in Nevada or elsewhere, and that halt has been renewed by every president since then, actions that critics of the treaty say keep the U.S. from adjusting to changing times.

“This month marks the 20th anniversary of the last test of U.S. nuclear weaponry. … [W]e are left with Cold War nuclear weapons, based on 1970s designs, intended to deter the Soviet Union,” Michaela Bendikova of the Heritage Foundation wrote last month. “These legacy weapons have high yields and are designed to take down hardened silos or command centers. Some U.S. policymakers seem to have missed the memo: The Soviet Union is no longer the paramount threat. We have to worry about new bad actors, for example North Korea or Iran.”

That last test was held on Sept. 23, 1992, and was code-named Divider. It was the last of an eight-test series. By then, 900 weapons had been detonated, most of them underground.

“Once the moratorium [on testing] went into effect,” said Los Alamos physicist Gary Wall last month, “there were many high-level discussions about what kind of science program we would build to take care of the stockpile without testing—this ramped up very quickly once it was clear the moratorium was serious.”

It is not necessary to test new weapons that are developed, but critics of the conservative effort believe pressure for testing would be intense.

Preston Truman, a Utah leader among downwinders—people victimized by radiation from earlier testing—said he objects not just to testing but to the development of new weapons.

“That was the whole purpose of a test ban in the first place—to prevent anyone from developing new nuclear weapons and weapons systems,” Truman said.

He also said that scientist have set up monitoring systems that would detect any testing of smaller weapons by rogue nations.


Meanwhile, President Obama’s stated determination to get the comprehensive test ban ratified by the Senate takes on new force with his reelection, but also complicates the worldwide nuclear picture.

States that have not signed or ratified the treaty are China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, India, North Korea, Pakistan and United States.

“Finally, the new team and the Democratic Party, which has retained control of the Senate, will be tempted to push through a slew of international agreements, including the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT),” wrote Center on International Cooperation strategic analyst W.P.S. Sidhu. “Were CTBT to be ratified, it would renew pressure on India to do the same. Similarly, the activist Obama administration is also likely to support negotiations for the Arms Trade Treaty and also revive efforts to stop the production of fissile material. Both of these will put India in a quandary, as it was relatively comfortable with the impasse in these areas.”

In September, Obama official Rose Gottemoeller said, “The last U.S. explosive nuclear test is not the only anniversary happening this week. Sixteen years ago, this Monday, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) was opened for signature. The United States signed the Treaty that same day.”

She said the Obama administration believes the refusal of the Senate to ratify the treaty was caused by doubts about verifiability, and believes those doubts can now be satisfied.

“As I have already outlined with regard to our nuclear deterrent, our extensive surveillance methods and computational modeling developed under the Stockpile Stewardship Program over the last 15 years have allowed our nuclear experts to understand how nuclear weapons work and age even better than when nuclear explosive testing was conducted, as our national laboratory directors themselves affirmed to the Vice President. The Treaty’s verification regime has also grown exponentially over the last decade. Today, the International Monitoring System (IMS) is roughly 85 percent complete and when fully completed, there will be IMS facilities in 89 countries spanning the globe. At entry into force, the full body of technical data gathered via the International Monitoring System will be available for verification purposes to all states parties.”

At an annual conference last week of nations that have ratified the treaty, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “To countries that remain outside of this treaty, I say: you are failing to live up to your responsibility as a member of the international community.”

The supporters of new weaponry frequently give the impression that politics is as much a factor for them as security. Bendikova, for instance, made her case by questioning the motives of opponents of her policy: “For those opposed to the U.S. maintaining superiority in nuclear arms, [no testing is] cause for celebration. But there will be no high-fiving among realists.”

In September 2002, when the Bush administration was reviewing nuclear testing readiness, the U.S. Energy Department said it would take 18 to 36 months to prepare the mothballed test site for a test. In addition, many experts in the field had retired.

Unfinished business

Meanwhile, as debate over the future of U.S. weapons goes on, the legacy of past U.S. weapons is still unsettled.

Recently an essay in Emmett, Idaho, Messenger Index accused the federal government of dragging out compensation until downwind victims of testing radiation die off.

“Because, as the years tick by more and more downwinders are … getting dealt their finally fallout card as they age and the latency periods following exposure catch up.”

As if to emphasize the passage of time, in Colorado last week, a Rocky Flats Cold War Museum opened to commemorate the work of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons laboratory in that state. It includes a display by photographer Carole Gallagher on the downwinders.

“I always wondered what happened to the people who lived near the testing areas,” she said. “So in my work I focused on workers, downwinders and atomic veterans.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...