Dec. 6, 2021
by Andrew Kishner
On May 22, 2020, the Washington Post reported that officials in the Trump administration deliberated over resuming U.S. nuclear testing at an interagency national security meeting held a week earlier, on May 15th.
The Trump administration officials' exploration of the idea of detonating a nuclear device at the U.S.'s dedicated continental nuclear test site in Nevada (for the first time since 1992) was part of a larger discussion of ongoing accusations (by the U.S.) that Russia and China were conducting low-yield nuclear tests.
These accusations first flared a year earlier in the days following a May 2019 press release by a U.S. national weapons lab about a nuclear experiment whose circumstances likewise were unusual and provocative.
The weapons lab's statement, which officially (belatedly) announced the U.S.'s February 2019 'Ediza' subcritical nuclear test, had omitted earlier public revelations that the test breached its containment, leaking radioactivity into an underground alcove in Nevada, an embarrassing gaff blamed in a later root cause analysis on goofs and incompetence.
The Ediza subcritical test (a non-critical mass explosive experiment with weapons grade plutonium) was the 29th such test since 1997 conducted by the Dept. of Energy, which conducted 1,000 nuclear tests in Nevada (100 of them in the open-air) during the Cold War.
The Ediza test was surprisingly conducted just prior to the Hanoi summit between North Korea and the U.S. in 2019. Naturally, this news raised the ire of North Korea. Via its own late May press release, North Korea expressed its alarm at the timing of Ediza and charged that the subcritical test was a sign of 'bad faith.'
Apparently in deflection of the news of the radiation leak and the 'bad faith' charge, both related to 'Ediza,' the U.S., beginning in late May, and throughout the summer of 2019, kept raising unsubstantiated claims that both Russia and China were conducting low-yield nuclear tests.
Both countries denied the accusations and raised their own theories, chief among them that the U.S.'s strategy was to use the alleged violations of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by the other two nuclear nations as pretext for ultimately withdrawing from that treaty.
Back to the May 22nd Washington Post article in 2020: the piece also stated that the meeting, which raised this provocative idea of nuclear testing resumption, 'did not conclude with any agreement to conduct a nuclear test.'
News reporters wrote that the point of the Trump officials' discussion of conducting a single demonstration, 'rapid' underground nuclear test in Nevada was that it could help bring China into trilateral arms control negotiations with the U.S. and Russia.
In subsequent weeks, press reporting revealed that the idea of nuclear testing by the Trump administration was still not ruled out, and that discussions on the idea were 'ongoing.'
The WaPo article noted: "a senior administration official said the proposal is 'very much an ongoing conversation.'"
The following month, an amendment was adopted in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on June 11 that appropriated $10 million for the execution of that nuclear test, which was then omitted from the language of a final version of the bill in December 2020.
Officials, in the end, decided to take 'other measures' than detonating a nuclear device to bring Russia or China to the arms treaty negotiating table.
News of the May 2020 discussion by Trump officials of resuming testing prompted a feverish flurry of letters, statements and the sort from activists, grassroots groups, elected officials, government watchdogs, and other concerned parties domestically and abroad, not just North Korea. The world was outraged at the idea that Trump was considering resuming nuclear testing—because they believed he would. The reaction was swift and overwhelming.
The Washington Post article from May 2020, interestingly, also added this tidbit:
"During the meeting, serious disagreements emerged over the idea, in particular from the National Nuclear Security Administration, according to two people familiar with the discussions. The NNSA, an agency that ensures the safety of the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, didn’t respond to a request for comment."
As a 15-year activist who has fought against boondoggle-to-outright dangerous activities at the Nevada nuclear testing site including 'Divine Strake,' subcritical nuclear testing, and nuclear testing resumption, I have learned from reading a sizeable number of books and articles about nuclear experimentation and the preceding quote is perhaps the most unbelievable statement I have ever come across.
In short, I don't think it is credible--what I mean is that it's not what the NNSA really thought, regardless of what was reported.
For Carole Gallagher's landmark work American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War, the U.S. photojournalist interviewed dozens of test site workers, atomic veterans, downwinders, and experts. Her book provided compelling and shocking profiles that exposed the horrors of the nuclear age that happened under our noses, yet still remains shrouded in American consciousness.
At the end of her book, Gallagher shared excerpts from an interview she conducted with the late radiobiologist John Gofman, who worked within the U.S. nuclear lab machine. He is quoted on page 333 of her book as saying: "I don't consider the Department of Energy a credible agency.'
From my research and experiences, that has been my assessment as well.
I don't believe for a moment that the NNSA seriously disagreed with the idea of nuclear testing resumption.
The NNSA would NEVER turn down a chance to detonate a nuclear device because its labs are always dreaming about the idea of doing a 'truth test' (a nuclear test). In fact, they never stopped nuclear testing—subcritical nuclear tests are nuclear tests in verbal camouflage. Why wouldn't they want to remove the camo and do the real thing? Especially if a sitting U.S. President considered the idea.
In short, in my belief, there is no way that the NNSA, which conducts subcritical tests in lieu of nuclear tests only because it can't do the latter, would have disagreed with the Trump administration's floating the idea of resuming testing, even for a single 'rapid' test.
That meeting of May 15th, 2020, was not a credible event, in my consideration.
I also believe that Donald Trump would have never authorized the execution of a nuclear test in Nevada.
He was bluffing. About conducting a test. About using a test to bring countries to the negotiating table. The meeting, or the reporting of it rather, was meant to agitate the masses—to precipitate outrage and public activism, in my opinion. Which it did—for the few who were already aware of the topic. (Had Mr. Trump done his homework, he would have figured out that such reporting about his meeting on May 15, 2020, wouldn't hold water amongst people who know better about the NNSA.)
But people fell for it.
And now the question, why? Why would Mr. Trump want this outcome? Because it worked for other issues.
Less than a day after the nuking of Hiroshima, President Harry Truman delivered an address to the world in which he described the bomb in basic language. He used the following phrase defining the atom bomb: 'It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe.' Less than two years later, Albert Einstein wrote in a letter that he felt that there was no defense against the manifestation of 'this basic power of the universe' in nuclear weapons and insisted 'there is no possibility of control except through the aroused understanding and insistence of the peoples of the world.'
If Mr. Trump wished that the ends of that May 15th, 2020 meeting about testing resumption justified the means, his hope that news of that meeting would incite reaction and insistence to bring us all closer to an informed, willful democracy was a bit naive.
Whereas most Americans have no idea of the size of the submerged iceberg that is the history of U.S. nuclear weapons, those citizens of this country from coast to coast who have suffered from nuclear accidents, meltdowns and nuclear testing fallout don't need leaders to shake the ground. As neighbors to atomic testing sites and the like, victims of the nuclear age in America have been there, done that.
What Mr. Trump has failed to realize is that of the solutions to nuclear weapons issues, agitation is not the key to this Einsteinian 'control.' When a crafty new leader concerned with pressing issues affecting Americans endeavors to apply his own style of spin to every issue in order to spur reaction and action, one issue remains stuck in place. The nuclear one. You can't spin the nuclear iceberg, Mr. Trump.
It is already spun.