SALT LAKE CITY — There’s no good reason for the United States to start testing nuclear weapons again, and if it did, the world would be less safe because other countries would follow suit, the former director of Sandia National Laboratories said Thursday.
“It’s really important to understand that if the U.S. resumes nuclear testing, it will incentivize other nations to resume testing as well,” said Jill Hruby, who headed for two years the lab that ensures the U.S. nuclear arsenal is safe, secure and reliable.
“Other existing nuclear powers wouldn’t want to be seen as unable to test or as unable to send a message that their weapons work,” she said. “This is just a longstanding tit for tat set of actions that takes place in this community.”
Hruby joined a virtual panel discussion on efforts to prohibit federal funding to restart explosive nuclear weapons testing hosted by Rep. Ben. McAdams.
The Utah Democrat blocked funding for test site preparations or weapons tests in an annual defense bill in the House. The Senate voted earlier to set aside $10 million in its version of the defense bill to conduct testing if the Trump administration decided to pursue it. Negotiations to reconcile the two bills won’t begin for months.
McAdams said explosive nuclear weapons testing is not only unnecessary but dangerous and irresponsible, noting past underground and above-ground tests exposed Utahns and others to radiation that resulted in deadly illnesses and cancer.
“Our country does not need new nuclear weapons testing. We cannot afford to put our citizens in danger and we should not signal to the rest of the world that nuclear nonproliferation is a thing of the past,” he said.
Hruby, now a member of the Nuclear Threat Initiative advisory board, said there are scientific reasons to restart testing, including to see how aged weapons perform, validate the behavior of new weapons and collect information on new weapon designs. But, she said, none of them are compelling because they could be explored with computer modeling.
“The potential political cost and actual cost for testing is higher than the benefit, in my opinion,” she said.
If testing were to resume, it would be for political not technical reasons, Hruby said.
Deb Sawyer, of the Utah Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said testing would be a giant step backward and encourage more countries to test.
“Testing would just open up the gates and say, ‘Go for it,’ and that’s the last thing that we need,” she said.
The Trump administration has talked about testing nuclear weapons as Congress considers extending compensation for those still suffering from radiation exposure during years of nuclear tests.
Utahns, including Mary Dickson, were repeatedly exposed to radiation from nuclear bomb tests at the Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas.
Dickson, a Downwinder and thyroid cancer survivor, said the impacts are far more widespread and severe than people know. She said it’s “morally reprehensible” to consider renewed nuclear weapons testing.
“There’s no way we should be risking those lives again,” she said.
McAdams said he’s often asked if underground testing, which ended in 1992, would be safe.
Longtime community activist Steve Erickson, a consultant and volunteer with Downwinders Inc. for nearly 40 years, said it’s a complicated question but there have been numerous releases of radiation from underground tests.
“It’s a dicey proposition,” he said.
Erickson said there is no strategic value to resuming nuclear testing. The only reason to test would be to develop and proof new warheads, he said.
“The question then becomes what do we need another new weapon for, another nuclear warhead,” Erickson said. “And to what end would we want to perhaps pursue a new arms race?”