The United States could conduct an underground nuclear weapons test within months of being given an order to do so, a senior Pentagon official said Tuesday.
But there has been no change in the U.S. policy to not test nuclear weapons, said Drew Walter, who is performing the duties of deputy assistant defense secretary for nuclear matters. He spoke four days after the Washington Post reported that “senior officials representing the top national security agencies” discussed conducting a nuclear test during a May 15 meeting.
“[I]f the president directed, because of a technical issue or a geopolitical issue, the system to go test, I think it would happen relatively rapidly,” Walter said Tuesday at a Mitchell Institute event.
Walter said the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the maintenance of U.S. nuclear weapons, “has a requirement to retain the ability to resume testing on particular timelines. Reviewing those timelines for the readiness posture regularly is always prudent.”
NNSA officials “maintain the capability to do all of that underground work,” Walter said, meaning they have a location suitable for an underground nuclear test.
A nuclear test could be conducted “with limited diagnostics…within months, probably not years,” he said. But he added that the time to prepare for “a fully diagnostic” test that generates “lots of data, all the bells and whistles, so to speak, might be measured in years.”
The United States has not tested nuclear weapon since 1992. The U.S. has signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty but the Senate has not ratified it.
In April, a State Department report accused Russia and China of having performed nuclear tests.
“The United States finds that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons experiments that have created nuclear yield and are not consistent with the U.S.‘zero-yield’ standard,” the report said. The report also questioned China’s nuclear activities saying they “raise concerns regarding its adherence to the ‘zero yield’ standard.”
“There is widespread concern about the major disparity in the way Russia and China appear to interpret and adhere to the zero-yield standard contained” in the treaty, Walter said. “We should be mindful of the implications over the long term of what other countries will learn, maybe not today, but in the long term, if they conduct tests at a — lower-yield tests that go supercritical.”