NPR Rejects CTBT Ratification; NNSA Shortens Testing Readiness Timeline

By Alicia Sanders-Zakre and Daryl Kimball

The Trump administration’s new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) asserts that “the United States does not support the ratification of the CTBT,” even though the United States and 182 other nations have signed the treaty, and even though there is no technical need to resume nuclear testing.*

The review, which generally defines U.S. policy regarding the role of nuclear weapons in security strategy, says “the United States will continue to support the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Preparatory Committee” and “the related International Monitoring System and the International Data Center.”

The NPR calls upon other states not to conduct nuclear testing and states that “[t]he United States will not resume nuclear explosive testing unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. arsenal ….”

An annual National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) report released in November 2017 shortens the previous readiness timeline to conduct a “simple [nuclear] test” explosion from 24 to 36 months down to six to 10 months, undermining the global nuclear testing taboo. This shortened timeline means that should the United States decide to conduct a “simple test” explosion, it should be prepared to do so within six to 10 months. The report also dictates that the United States be ready for a “fully instrumented” test within 24 to 36 months and a “test to develop a new capability” within 60 months.

The 2018 NNSA Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan comes as the United States embarks on refurbishment of several warheads, including a program to consolidate several variants into one new and complex B61-12 gravity bomb. Presumably, the shortened timeline expressed in the report indicates that weapons designers may wish to test these new warheads.

The change “appears to erode the US commitment to the nuclear testing moratorium,” claimed Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, in a Nov. 16 blog post.  Such a move is apparently in spite of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s assertion last January that this moratorium has “served as well.”

While the NNSA report and the NPR both reaffirm that “there is no current requirement to conduct an underground nuclear test,” the administration’s cursory rejection of CTBT ratification, combined with the NNSA’s revised testing readiness timeline suggests the Trump administration only wants to reap the benefits of the treaty, including the data from the monitoring system, while leaving the door open to resuming nuclear testing.

*This story was updated once the final Nuclear Posture Review was released on Feb. 2. Previously the story referenced a leaked version of the document. The language in the NPR on the CTBT did not change from the leaked draft to the final version.