The Senate Armed Services Committee advanced an amendment last week that is “aimed at reducing the amount of time it would take to carry out a nuclear test.” Sponsored by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), the legislation moved forward in a closed session by a party line vote, and follows a report last month that top Trump administration officials had discussed the possible resumption of U.S. nuclear test explosions.
Since news of the White House discussion broke, many experts have emphasized the severe consequences of nuclear testing, something the United States has not done since 1992. The expressed concerns have ranged from public health risks to diplomatic crises to nuclear proliferation and more. However, one issue that deserves more attention is the crisis such an action would create for the peaceful use of nuclear power.
Thanks to the efforts of U.S. diplomats in the last several decades, there are clear barriers between nuclear weapons and nuclear power. These lines are delineated by a suite of agreements, which include the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been the centerpiece of international nuclear security for more than 50 years, and the nuclear weapon test moratorium first announced by the United States in 1993 and now observed by the entire world.
A continued moratorium would leave the door open for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to be ratified by the eight remaining countries required for the treaty to go into force, including the United States. Any effort to destroy the moratorium and thereby undermine the CTBT, especially by the United States resuming nuclear testing, would have dire consequences for the NPT.
The NPT is fundamental to global nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament, and it has also enabled the global growth of the nuclear energy industry, since it guarantees all NPT member states the right to nuclear power technology and obligates them to assist other member states in obtaining nuclear power capabilities. Furthermore, the NPT’s safeguards, a system that allows the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect and verify peaceful uses of nuclear materials, are essential to successful standards of safety in global nuclear power and for preventing the spread or diversion of nuclear materials for military purposes.
The success of nuclear energy — and public trust in its safety — is necessary in the worldwide battle against climate change, since nuclear energy constitutes, according to the International Energy Agency, “the second-largest source of low-carbon electricity today.” In the United States, nuclear energy accounts for roughly 20 percent of electricity generation, but it produces more than half of low-carbon electricity. In the European Union (EU), nuclear energy provides more than a quarter of electricity, but as Germany and other countries decommission their nuclear reactors, they are likely to switch to coal rather than to another low-carbon energy source. Nuclear power also provides a low-carbon source of energy for industrial processes, like water desalination. While some decision-makers view nuclear energy with skepticism due to its high capital costs and the need for spent fuel storage, nuclear energy is an essential tool for combating climate change while meeting energy demand.
Nuclear technologies also carry the risk of weapons proliferation, since nuclear weapons and nuclear energy are both based on the same physical process. For this reason, nuclear energy use will always require the system of safeguards that the NPT has established. Any action, such as nuclear weapons testing, that undermines the NPT also harms the global deployment of nuclear energy programs. The NPT asserts that parties have the “inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear-energy technology. The United States has been able to enforce and enhance nonproliferation practices through highly controlled nuclear exports and agreements under Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, which establishes the highest safety standards.
However, in recent years, the U.S. has ceded the mantle of global nuclear-power development to Russia and China, which now account for the majority of new nuclear-reactor construction. It is critically important for international security that the U.S. reverse course and regain global leadership on nuclear power so that safety and nonproliferation standards established by the United States can prevail.
Any efforts by the United States to undermine the CTBT and the NPT would erode the global nonproliferation regime that enables civil nuclear technologies to meet energy demand while generating low-carbon electricity. Furthermore, the United States would undermine its credibility in enforcing global nonproliferation standards and norms. Lifting the moratorium on nuclear testing does not serve U.S. national security; it simply makes nuclear proliferation more likely, and the world less safe.