Between 1945 and 1996, the world’s nuclear-armed countries conducted 2,046 nuclear weapons test explosions. Around a quarter of these were atmospheric, with a total yield that would equal detonating a Hiroshima-sized nuclear bomb twice every day for 35 years. These blasts in particular polluted the atmosphere and embedded radioactive elements in the Earth’s crust, causing a slew of humanitarian and environmental consequences that will continue to haunt future generations.
These nuclear tests confirmed that new nuclear bomb designs worked and fueled a global arms race. As more people realized the effects of nuclear testing, they urged for these practices to stop. In turn, the Partial Test Ban Treaty was entered into force in 1963. However, underground nuclear testing continued. Eventually, the international community — led by the United States — agreed to halt all nuclear testing by negotiating the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996. Although the United States was the first to sign the CTBT, the treaty remains in limbo more than 20 years later because the United States, China, and six other countries have yet to ratify it. In turn, the door to nuclear testing remains open.
Making matters worse, the Trump administration’s new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) calls for expanding the role of nuclear weapons in security policy and building new nuclear capabilities. Hidden among these destabilizing policy proposals is an American departure from the global norm against nuclear testing. Reversing the policy of the Obama administration, which strongly supported the CTBT but could not persuade the Republican-led Senate to even hold hearings on its ratification, the new NPR explicitly states that the United States will not seek ratification of the treaty.
The new NPR also calls for changes at American weapons labs that allow for accelerated nuclear warhead development. A separate report from the National Nuclear Security Administration proposes to make it easier for the United States to re-engage in nuclear testing by shortening the time required to prepare to test from two or three years to as little as six months. The Trump administration’s stance on nuclear testing is counterproductive and directly undermines key pillars of global nuclear security architecture. While some may think that testing American nuclear weapons will showcase political resolve, restraint is the best option.
It is understandable that the administration wants to present a strong front, given North Korea’s advances in nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities, and sustaining strategic stability vis-a-vis Russia and China is also important. But the NPR’s unnecessarily escalatory provisions do not achieve that goal and fundamentally misunderstand how to avert conflict. Rejecting the CTBT is a prime example of the NPR’s short-sightedness. The treaty serves US strategic interests because it makes nuclear proliferation difficult, and the United States no longer has a technical need for explosive testing to maintain the safety and reliability of its existing nuclear arsenal. In fact, even though Congress has not ratified the treaty, the United States has contributed a great deal to build the CTBT’s “billion dollar” system to detect—and therefore deter—potential nuclear detonations around the world. The United States pays nearly a quarter of the treaty organization's annual budget and makes substantial extra budgetary contributions.
Even if the current US administration is unable to see the merits in pursuing a world free of nuclear weapons, that does not mean that it has to also abandon the hope for a world free of nuclear detonations. It has been almost 40 years since the last global mass protest movement pushed back against the threat of nuclear weapons. History has proven that when there is enough pressure from civil society, moments of crisis can be leveraged into moments of opportunity to hold governments accountable. Tools like the CTBT make that accountability possible.
The United States should realize that committing to the same scrutiny to which it wants the rest of the world—including North Korea—subjected is a sign of good faith, leadership, and confidence in the global security system that America has built. Unless the public challenges the Trump administration’s distaste for committing to international agreements—including the CTBT—the United States will continue to block critical solutions from implementation.
As diplomatic engagement is now surfacing on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing will pause for at least the near future. However, since the United States is calling for new nuclear weapons capabilities, North Korea is not the only actor that needs to prove that it is serious about agreements. Nuclear proliferation is one of many security issues that only transparent and scientifically verifiable treaties like the CTBT can solve. By urging the United States, China, North Korea, and the other five remaining countries to come fully on board with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, young people can help finish what their elders started more than two decades ago.