WASHINGTON ― The Senate’s top Democrat, Sen. Chuck Schumer, is co-sponsoring legislation meant to prevent the Trump administration from restarting explosive nuclear weapons testing.
The Preserving Leadership Against Nuclear Explosives Testing, or PLANET, Act, announced Thursday, would bar any funds from being used for such tests. It follows a Washington Post report of high-level discussions around the possibility of doing a “rapid test” ― potentially America’s first live nuclear test since 1992.
The bill is led by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and a longtime arms control advocate on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While a key administration official has said tests could begin within months if ordered by the president for technical or geopolitical reasons, critics say it could incentivize Russia and China to openly test with little valuable data to show for U.S. tests.
The bill had no backing from Republicans, but its 14 Democratic co-sponsors include Schumer, who is Senate minority leader, and several other members who could be instrumental in attaching it to upcoming appropriations legislation or the National Defense Authorization Act: Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Vice Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and three members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
For decades, the United States has relied on simulations and nonexplosive testing to assess the health and capabilities of the nuclear arsenal, and in the near term, the data gathered by such a test would be minimal, Drew Walter, who is performing the duties of deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear matters, said at an event last month.
Critics argue it’s not worth the risks to public health or geopolitically advantageous.
“Congress must send the President the same message the directors of our national laboratories have sent the President: we know more about the U.S. nuclear stockpile in the absence of testing than we knew in the half-century of testing,” Markey said in a statement.
“That is why, before it is too late, Congress must use its power of the purse to deny President Trump from sparking a global return to testing the most powerful weapon ever created by man. North Korea is an international pariah for its defiance of international norms — largely through its illicit nuclear weapons tests. We must not join them.”
According to a bill summary, it would also allow for stockpile stewardship activities, such as certifying the safety, security and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, so long as those activities are consistent with the “zero-yield” scope of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.
There is no legal block on live testing, as America has not formally ratified the CNTBT, which fell just short of the votes needed in the Senate in 1999. Like the U.S., China has signed onto the CTBT but not ratified it. Russia has ratified it, but the U.S. has publicly questioned whether Moscow is fulfilling its promise not to do testing. (Public data has not substantiated those claims.)
Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.