Science

Could nuclear weapons testing resume as global tensions rise?


An intercontinental ballistic missile is test-fired, without a live warhead, as part of Russia’s nuclear drills on 26 October 2022

Russian Defense Ministry Press O/UPI/Shutterstock

Nuclear tensions have risen since the invasion of Ukraine, with Russia and other nuclear-armed powers reportedly updating long-disused weapon test sites in preparation for use once more. Now, Russian lawmakers have voted to begin the process of rolling back a treaty banning such tests. Are we about to see a return of the most destructive weapons in the world?

The moratorium against nuclear testing rests on an uneasy patchwork of international treaties. The Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed by the UK, US and Soviet Union in 1963, forbidding testing of these weapons in the atmosphere, underwater or in outer space, but permitting underground trials. Then, in 1996, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) theoretically put a stop to underground testing too.

Yet the CTBT remains unfinished. Despite 178 states having ratified it, the treaty will not officially come into force until action from eight more nations; China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the US have signed, but not ratified, the agreement, while India, Pakistan and North Korea never signed it.

Despite this, nuclear test bans have proven effective. More than 2000 tests took place between the first US detonation, Trinity, in 1945, and the drafting of the CTBT. Since then, India and Pakistan each carried out a handful of tests in 1998, while North Korea is the only nation to have tested a nuclear weapon in the 21st century, with its last test taking place in 2017.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent ongoing war may have changed its outlook on testing, however. Russia ratified the CTBT in 2000, but on 17 October its lower parliamentary house, the Duma, passed a measure to revoke ratification with 412 votes in favour – with none against and no abstentions. Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said that the decision was being made because of the failure of the US to ratify the treaty and its “irresponsible attitude to global security issues”.

Further readings and votes are needed to officially revoke Russia’s ratification of the treaty, and it is expected to remain a signatory to it, but this is another sign that the nation may restart testing that ended in 1990, with the Soviet Union’s final detonation. In recent months Russia has tested new nuclear delivery systems – without live nuclear warheads – and there have been prominent voices within the country calling for a resumption of nuclear tests.

In a recent speech, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin reportedly wouldn’t be drawn on whether nuclear tests were necessary, but said: “As a rule, experts say, with a new weapon – you need to make sure that the special warhead will work without failures.”

All three of the major nuclear powers appear to be preparing for tests. CNN reports that expansion and modernisation work has taken place at China’s test site in the far western region of Xinjiang, as well as at Russia’s in an Arctic Ocean archipelago and the US test site in the Nevada desert. Speaking to CNN, Jeffrey Lewis at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California said “there are really a lot of hints that we’re seeing that suggest Russia, China and the United States might resume nuclear testing”.

But Andrew Futter at the University of Leicester, UK, says that while “nuclear weapons are back” on the political agenda, there is no logical reason to test a bomb. That is because testing is more useful in the early stages of a state’s programme, and that this need falls away over time as designs are proven and data is collected. Today, most nuclear-armed states can run computer simulations to determine what will happen with new designs, says Futter.

“A lot of nuclear devices are so simple that you can be pretty confident they’re going to work. The technology has changed, but the basic science hasn’t,” he says. “There’s no logic to doing this, other than political rhetoric – which doesn’t mean it won’t happen.” 

“The trouble is that there’s what logic would suggest will happen, and then there’s reality,” says Futter.

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