What It Would Take To Restart American Nuclear Testing

John Hopkins was Division Leader of Los Alamos’s Testing Division for many years. I recently heard him speak about what it would take to begin nuclear testing again – whether for one test or a continuing program.

American nuclear testing ended in 1992. The location for all American nuclear tests at that time was the Nevada Test Site, now the Nevada National Security Site. With a few exceptions, tests were done above ground until the Limited Test Ban Treaty, signed in 1963, and underground from then on. The atmospheric tests could be seen and felt in Las Vegas.

In 1992, the population of the city of Las Vegas was about 300,000, and surrounding Clark County 800,000. Those populations have now more than doubled, to 600,000 and 2 million. In 1992, Las Vegas had few high-rise buildings. It now has 160 high-rises, of which 42 are taller than 400 feet. In 1968, the test of a large device (probably more than 1 megaton) caused Las Vegas buildings to sway in the equivalent of a 6.5 magnitude earthquake.

Nuclear weapons were also tested in the Marshall Islands, Alaska, New Mexico, and Mississippi. The Marshall Islands are now suing nuclear weapons states in the International Court of Justice, alleging that they have not complied with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligation to work toward eliminating nuclear weapons. The Alaska test site on Amchitka Island is now a wildlife refuge. The other tests in the United States were one-off tests, the original Trinity Test at what is now White Sands Missile Range, and the others for the Plowshares Project, in such things as stimulating natural gas production.

None of these sites is now suitable for nuclear weapons testing.

If a site could be found, an organization would have to be assembled to plan and execute the test(s). It would require an overall manager, with deputy and office staff including an archivist to search the records. During the 1990s, people who had participated in nuclear testing were interviewed; additionally, records of the tests themselves exist. The value of these records is in listing what must be done. Technology has changed enough that operations, materials, and diagnostics would be different.

A test requires the work of thousands of people. Weapons designers specify what they want to learn from the test. Engineers and scientists help develop the plan for the diagnostics. Geologists define the best place for the test. Drillers and heavy equipment operators are needed, along with appropriate equipment, to prepare the site. And, of course, secretaries, technical writers, safety engineers, procurement specialists, and many other “fixers” are needed.

For all those people, a small town must be constructed, with living quarters, restaurants and movie theaters, roads, sanitation, and other amenities.

After a shaft or tunnel has been drilled, the device and its diagnostics are emplaced by skilled technicians, engineers, and scientists. Mechanisms and engineered backfill close the shaft or tunnel off to contain the explosion.

Hopkins estimated that the cost to start up a testing program would be at least half a billion dollars, all of that up front, whether for one test or a continuing program. It would take at least six months, probably more. And  that would be if the easiest option, the Nevada Test Site, could be the location.

Hopkins literally wrote the book on nuclear testing.


3/16/16: Italicized words are edits suggested by Hopkins.

Top photo of test preparations from Wikipedia.

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