Jeffrey LewisJon Kyl Arizona Test Site

A lot of negative descriptions come to mind when I think of Arizona Senator Jon Kyl. Stupid, however, is not one of them.

He is a formidable opponent to be feared, as suggested by his recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the need to resume yield testing of nuclear weapons.

I believe the best argument for convincing skeptics to support ratification of the CTBT is that the United States is now permanently out of the testing business. The United States will never again test a nuclear weapon, in which case other countries should be similarly constrained. “A bad idea,” one skeptic-turned-supporter wrly admitted, “whose time has come.”

Kyl — a stone-cold opponent of arms control — seems to recognize the danger of losing the debate about testing, and takes the claim head-on in a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled, “Why We Need to Test Nuclear Weapons”:

There were concerns a decade ago that the U.S. might be unable to safely and reliably maintain its own nuclear deterrent—and the nuclear umbrella that protects our allies such as Japan, Australia and South Korea —if it forever surrendered the right to test its weapons. Those concerns over aging and reliability have only grown. Last year, Paul Robinson, chairman emeritus of Sandia National Laboratory, testified before Congress that the reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons still cannot be guaranteed without testing them, despite more than a decade of investments in technological advancements.

Now, let’s be clear: It is just not true that “Concerns over aging and reliability have only grown.”

Maybe Paul Robinson’s concerns have grown, though he was against the treaty in 1999 as well. I’d say his concerns have been pretty constant, unless he’s gone off some meds lately.

Everybody else, however, has fewer concerns today than in 1999. Robinson was one of three laboratory directors, along with Bruce Tarter and John Browne, who helped damn the CTBT with faint praise in 1999. Today, Tarter and Browne sound like supporters of the treaty. (Oddly, Robinson was director in 1999 of the one laboratory — Sandia — that makes non-nuclear components the United States is not prohibited from testing under the CTBT).

In other words, our confidence in the stockpile is increasing. What were plausible arguments in 1999 seem much less so today. Richard Garwin, who knows one or two things about nuclear weapons, has argued that we are now experiencing increasing confidence in a stockpile of tested designs:

These are very modest goals in contrast to the frequently heard need to replace warheads about whose reliability and safety there is “increasing concern.” This concern is usually expanded to argue that, with the accumulation of small modifications to existing warheads in the Life Extension Programs (LEPs), we move farther from the nuclear explosion test base, and at some point, the warheads will no longer be certifiable …


I disagree. The NNSA’s $5-billion-per-year science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) may be essential in providing the foundation for the labs to design an RRW that might indeed be certifiable without nuclear testing, but that same program has provided the basis over time for increasing, not decreasing, confidence in the performance of these legacy weapons.

A key milestone in this regard occurred in late 2006. Until then, the Bush administration had based its case for the RRW program in large measure on the argument that the United States was incapable of remanufacturing plutonium pits, the core of the primary nuclear explosive in U.S. thermonuclear weapons. The NNSA argued that it would be better to start anew with something that could reasonably be traced to a nuclear test explosion but that would give expanded freedom of design in view of a post-Cold War assumption of relaxed requirements on warhead weight and yield.

Yet, in late 2006, the SSP led to the judgment by Livermore and Los Alamos that the plutonium pit in each of our stockpile nuclear weapons has a life exceeding 85 years, perhaps 100 years. This conclusion was endorsed by a technical study by JASON and was published by the NNSA.

[Emphasis mine]

This is not to say there aren’t concerns over aging and reliability. But, thanks to Stockpile Stewardship Program, the laboratories are in a much better position to spot and fix problems today than they were during the era of nuclear testing.

Paul Robinson has every right to his opinion, but he’s outside the mainstream consensus.

Politics of Testing

It is good that the United States does not need to yield test nuclear weapons because, as a practical matter, no President or Congress will find the political will to do so.

It is no accident that the Bush Administration, which expressed a visceral hostility to the test ban, nevertheless proposed two new nuclear weapons on the promise that each could be deployed without resort to testing. Even those proposals — the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator and the Reliable Replacement Warhead — got a pretty rough reception in a then-Republican Congress.

You may recall the ferocious opposition to Divine Strake — a DTRA-funded conventional explosion at the Nevada Test Site to model an earth penetrating nuclear warhead. DTRA canceled the experiment.

As Las Vegas has sprawled toward the Nevada Test Site, there is no chance that any politician in Nevada or neighboring Utah will permit the United States to resume yield testing at NTS. Zero, none, nada, zip. Like Yucca Mountain, but times 10. This is what then-Utah Governor John Huntsman looked like during a hearing on Divine Strake:

Image by Stephanie Merzel

Hunstman later said he was jubilant at the decision to cancel the experiment. And Republicans considered him Presidential timber, before he agreed to serve as Ambassador to China.

Hell, even the Nevada Test Site — encouraged by Senators Reid and Ensign — has decided it is time for a new name that doesn’t include the word “test”.

That sort of says it all, doesn’t it?

A Modest Proposal

Having said all this, I think the United States should have the option of testing in extremis. Although I didn’t support raising test site readiness at NTS, I do think we need a credible option to resume yield testing in the event of a catastrophic problem in the Stockpile Stewardship program and a dramatic, adverse change in the geopolitical environment.

Unfortunately, that means we need to move the Nevada Test Site — efforts to find suitable locations for Divine Strake in New Mexico and Indiana were not encouraging. Where to go? I haven’t a clue.

So, let me, in the spirit of compromise, suggest that DOE fund a study on relocating the Nevada Test Site to one of three sites, including at least one site in Arizona.

After all, there is only one American politician with the patriotism and courage to defend to his constituents the need to resume yield testing in their backyard: Senator Jon Kyl.

The Nevada Test Site was selected in 1950 before the era of underground testing and thermonuclear weapons. Although the site turned out to have some very fortuitous geologic features, perhaps it is time to green-field a new test site based on the past sixty years of testing experience. Plus, as Joe Cirincione and I discovered, Sedona is lovely this time of year.

If the Department of Energy were to select a site in Arizona, we would certainly want to name the Arizona Test Site after Senator Kyl — although that might have to wait until he retires from the Senate or loses his reelection bid. Until then, we could call new site something patriotic like the “Freedom Test Site” so that when residents in Phoenix complain about tremors, Senator Kyl can explain to his constituents “That’s what freedom feels like.”

Calling for a resumption of testing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed is nothing for a man of Senator Kyl’s conviction. I can’t wait for the op-ed in the Arizona Republic.


  1. James (History)

    Given the Yucca Mountain fiasco, I think that simply closing the test sites and initiating a search for a new one would be a test ban in all save name.

    I have a lot more confidence in the US’ untested weapons than I do in Russia’s or China’s. I don’t think I’m alone in that assumption. If the purpose of nuclear weapons is deterrence, the CTBT thus works entirely in the US’ favor; every year that goes by without testing makes the US arsenal that much more formidable in comparison to that of the other nuclear states. If, on the other hand, one regards nuclear weapons as just another form of artillery to be used against the mud huts of the natives, then the precise reliability of each weapon is much more of a factor.

    This distinction is what underlies the disagreement about the CTBT. Do you just want to have nuclear weapons or are you really planning to use them? That is the real dispute.

  2. Yale Simkin (History)

    I suggest that Sedona, AZ would be a dicey location at best for atomic testing. It’s entirely possible that violent chain reactions can’t initiate due to damping by Positive Karmic Vibes (PKV) from the Sedona Energy Vortexes

    But going from the sublime to the ridiculous…
    In many ways we may be considered more confident in our weapons than in the 70s-80s.
    Our current computing/modeling capability dwarfs earlier abilities. We understand with far greater precision and granularity exactly what occurs nanosecond by nanosecond when the button is pushed.

    BTW… spellchecking on the word “tresspassing” is in order.

    In the same vein, that PONI blog post you linked to a couple days ago needs some proofreading, too. The third sentence of that PONI blogpost was definitely (and entertainingly) made R-Rated due to an excellent typo.

  3. Muskrat

    With the rapid and powerful implosion of the Las Vegas housing market, maybe there is still testing being done— on a new housing-based weapon.

  4. ServingPatriot (History)

    An elegant solution to the Kyl dilemma. Although I’m certain he’d be happy to spend billions of tax dollars in his state without actually ever having the trigger pulled!

  5. Ward Wilson (History)

    An excellent solution. And I think James’ framing of the CTBT is smart and worth thinking about.

  6. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Update | 9:28 am

    Fixed the typo in the image.

  7. Yale Simkin (History)

    Dang! PONI also fixed the cool typo in their blog post… 🙁

    It’s back to a G rating.

  8. Stephanie Merzel (History)

    You didn’t ask for permission to use my photo, but you can. Please add my name. ~stephanie

  9. J. (History)

    Re: Divine Strake, let’s remember that the test involved was dealing with conventional munitions, despite the poor choice of words referring to a “mushroom cloud.”

  10. Jay Coghlan (History)

    Capital idea relocating the Test Site to Arizona given Senator Kyl’s national security concerns over CTBT ratification and the political impossibility of resuming full-scale testing in Nevada. I’m confident the good Senator will expedite sacrificing a good chunk of the Grand Canyon State while explaining to his angry constituents how it’s for the good of the country.

    On a tangential point, you say “efforts to find suitable locations for Divine Strake in New Mexico and Indiana were not encouraging.” The public should know that in May 2007 DoD’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency approved a series of Divine Strake-type tests using the same basic ammonium nitrate fuel oil recipe at the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) near Alamogordo, NM. They have the same purpose of testing how to destroy hardened, deeply buried targets, at explosive yields not practical to deliver to real targets without the use of nuclear weapons.

    See DTRA’s Record of Decision at
    I assume these tests have been ongoing since then.

    Jay Coghlan
    Executive Director
    Nuclear Watch New Mexico

  11. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I wonder about both my Senators. First off, I’m a Republican who’s party left me behind in 1992 with a radical turn to the stupid. Even a person who most of you would consider a missile hugger like me realizes that swords come with two edges. And that arms control is very much a process that needs to be ‘engineered’ into systems. Also that nuclear warfare is suicide and at a very early point of use in combat no longer contribute to the defense of a nation. Even from a Amero-centric point of view, a test ban is one of the best kinds of treaties an established nuclear power would want to enter. It has the effect of freezing the number of owners of tested systems, leaving a nuclear-come-lately to sit on their arsenal in uneasy contemplation as to the effectiveness of their systems.

    So that begs the question. What is going through my Senator’s head? Is there some new class of weapon he wants to see come to the fore? Did someone finally figure out how to make the nuclear pumped X-Ray laser and he’s pining for a re-hash of the SDI? Or is he responding to some deeply held emotional response that more bombs means more security? This missile hugger would like to know.


  12. Josh (History)


    It’s too bad about the untimely demise of the PONI typo. A recent ISIS email made up for it, barely.

  13. Yale Simkin (History)

    Josh wrote: “A recent ISIS email made up for it, barely.”

    Care to share? Or are some things better left unsaid..

  14. Helian (History)

    I have posted some comments on Kyl’s article at my blog that may be of interest: