Proposed Changes to America’s Nuclear Policy Means Congress Needs to Act

Craig Axford
Jan 11, 2018 · 5 min read

During his first term, President George W. Bush flirted with the idea of adding lower yield tactical atomic weapons to America’s nuclear arsenal. These so-called “bunker busters” were supposedly needed to take out hardened sites that conventional weapons couldn’t, though they might also be used to attack an enemy’s conventional forces or other strategic sites. They were pitched as a kind of safer nuclear bomb that came without the large-scale civilian casualties and associated fallout of their more powerful and less discriminating predecessors.

The development of these new “tactical nukes” likely would have required Bush 43 to reverse a nuclear testing moratorium signed into law during his father’s presidency, a moratorium that was later extended by President Bill Clinton. Now, under President Trump, it appears the tactical nuclear weapon idea has resurfaced, raising yet again the possibility of renewed nuclear testing.

When Bush 43 began toying with the concept of tactical nukes I was serving as co-chair of the Utah Democratic Progressive Caucus with my friend and colleague Laura Bonham. Together Laura and I approached Congressman Jim Matheson, who has since left office, with the idea of introducing legislation requiring that any renewal of nuclear testing go through the same kind of environmental review the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) mandates for many other proposed federal projects. Among other things, NEPA requires the preparation of an environmental impact statement (EIS) that evaluates both the direct and cumulative effects of the proposed action when significant consequences may result. This EIS is put out for public review and comment that must then be responded to by the lead agency, which in the case of nuclear testing would be the US Department of Energy. Any decision to move forward by the agency would then be subject to administrative appeal and, if necessary, judicial review.

Congressman Matheson responded promptly with the introduction of the Safety for Americans from Nuclear Weapons Testing Act (SANWTA). The bill deemed any resumption of nuclear testing “to be a major Federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment for which a separate detailed environmental impact statement is required under section 102(2)( c) of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (42 U.S.C. 4332).” Later, in 2009, this same bill was introduced in the United States Senate by former Republican Senator Bob Bennett.

That nuclear testing has a major impact on “the quality of the human environment” can hardly be contested. Downwinder is the term commonly used to describe a person exposed to nuclear fallout. Though often thought to refer only to those living in the communities nearest the test site, particularly in southern Utah where exposure to radioactive fallout was most extreme, in truth most Americans living through the 1950s and early 60s qualify as downwinders to at least some degree. Atmospheric testing between the years of 1951–1963 spread radiation originating at the Nevada Test Site like blood splatter across the United States. The map provided at the top of this article shows just how extensive exposure to fallout from more than one nuclear test was during that period.

Downwinders, meaning those people, individuals, communities that were downwind of the nuclear test site. During those years when we were testing atomic bombs above ground, when we watched them for entertainment from the roofs of our high schools, little did we know what was raining down on us, little did we know what would appear years later. ~Terry Tempest Williams

Even with the end of atmospheric nuclear testing following the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, underground tests continued posing a significant risk to public health and the environment. Though far more contained than earlier tests, radiation still leaked into the atmosphere and the possibility of major releases remained.

Baneberry Underground Nuclear Test, December 18, 1970.

On December 18, 1970, the US conducted the Baneberry Nuclear Test. This underground test failed catastrophically, blasting radioactive dust thousands of feet into the atmosphere. According to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) account of the Baneberry Test, “For the first time since the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) had driven nuclear testing underground in 1963, a nuclear testing cloud could be observed as far away as Las Vegas, 120 kilometres from the test site.” The CTBTO adds that “According to a report by the National Cancer Institute, Baneberry released 80,000 curies of radioactive iodine-131 into the atmosphere — more than any other U.S. underground nuclear test and comparable to a smaller atmospheric nuclear test. The radioactive dust reached a height of around three kilometres, from where it was carried by winds into several adjacent U.S. states.”

By passing the Safety for Americans from Nuclear Weapons Act, Congress would be sending a powerful message to President Trump and future administrations that the resumption of nuclear testing will not go unnoticed or unchallenged by the American public. However, a far more significant step would be ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would negate the need for strenuous environmental review by eliminating the possibility of future nuclear testing. The US signed the CTBT treaty in 1996, but the Senate has yet to ratify it.

At no point in the nuclear age has an American president exhibited so cavalier an attitude toward nuclear weapons as the current occupant of the White House. He has, at various times, questioned the worth of having a nuclear arsenal if the United States is not willing to use it, leaving the door open to a first strike. This has seemed particularly true with regard to North Korea. President Trump views expanding America’s nuclear capabilities as a natural extension of his efforts to make the most powerful and best-funded military on the planet “great again.” A resumption of testing is extremely likely at some point in the not too distant future if he gets his way.

Congress has so far demonstrated little desire to stand up to the president as he shreds the traditions and institutions the United States took for granted until 2016. Republicans, in particular, seem at best resigned to Trumpism, with many even taking on the role of cheerleaders as the president makes a mockery of the nation’s values. But the use of nuclear weapons is no laughing matter. Renewed testing alone would have serious foreign policy as well as domestic public health consequences, even if the US remained committed to never using nuclear weapons in a first strike against another country.

Admittedly the Safety for Americans from Nuclear Weapons Testing Act only serves to put the brakes on any rush toward renewed testing. However, given the Senate’s refusal so far to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, SANWTA may be the best means to run out the clock on a reckless administration that disdains careful deliberation and transparency. Just its reintroduction would bring much-needed attention to an issue many Americans have forgotten. Attention often buys time, and buying time when it comes to the proliferation of nuclear weapons can mean the difference between civilization’s survival and collapse.

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