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June 13, 2021

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Horsford and Titus back measure to block nuclear weapons testing

Low-level radioactive waste

Steve Marcus

A fork lift operator offloads a container of mixed-waste in the Area 5 Radioactive Waste Management Site of the Nevada National Security Site (N2S2), previously the Nevada Test Site, about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, on Feb. 1, 2011.

Nevada lawmakers have been on the offensive over the last two weeks after a Washington Post report revealed the Trump administration has discussed resuming nuclear testing.

A group of lawmakers, including two members of Nevada’s House delegation, have brought forward a bill that would hit the federal government in the pocketbook, taking away its ability to fund further testing. Going after the money, they say, is likely the best way to stop further testing.

Democratic Rep. Steve Horsford’s district makes up much of North Las Vegas and stretches into the state’s rural areas to include the Nevada National Security Site, which in 1992 was the last location to conduct a nuclear weapons test.

Horsford last week signed the legislation — known as the Preserving Leadership Against Nuclear Explosives Testing (PLANET) Act — which would restrict funds for fiscal year starting July 1 from being used to expand testing. Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey is carrying the legislation.

Though Nevada has not been mentioned explicitly, the state’s history with nuclear testing, along with the existence of the Nevada National Security Site, puts it at the forefront of locations where a test could be conducted. The site is 60 miles north of Las Vegas.

“Based on the role that Nevada has played historically with the test site and testing range, our amount of federal land, and the airspace just puts us on the list of places where this is likely to occur when and if nuclear testing were allowed to resume under the Trump proposal,” Horsford said.

The site still sees subcritical testing, which tests equipment without using plutonium or a surrogate material and, therefore, cannot cause a nuclear chain reaction and explosion.

In the late-'90s, after both the United States and Russia paused nuclear testing, the United Nations adopted the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to prohibit testing. The U.S. Senate has not ratified the treaty, and the abstention of the United States and eight other countries, including nuclear powers like India and Pakistan, means the treaty has not gone into effect.

Democratic Rep. Dina Titus, whose district makes up Las Vegas proper and the Las Vegas Strip, introduced the bill. Titus said going after funding seems to be the only way to stop any proposed testing on a congressional level, and that she doesn’t see ratification of the treaty happening.

“They haven’t ratified it in the however many years it’s been pending, so this is really the only effective way,” Titus said.

Although former President Barack Obama unsuccessfully made ratification a goal, Trump said in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review that the country would not seek ratification.

“It’s very similar to the situation with Yucca Mountain. It’s federal property, it’s federal policy. They have jurisdiction over it, so the state could protest and the state could sue and the state could do things like it's doing to Yucca Mountain,” Titus said. “Because this is national security, I think they’d even have a harder time stopping this.”

Horsford said that politicians from affected areas should have a say in nuclear matters, and that passing legislation to require local consent on nuclear matters is important. Titus said that public opinion will likely mobilize against any outright movement to resume testing.

“It’s an ironic situation. We welcomed nuclear testing after (World War II). It was a pride that we had. They said that desert was blooming with atoms,” Titus said. “It was a real source of legitimacy for Nevada, a real source of federal revenue for Nevada.”

After years of testing, she said, and the federal government’s move to store nuclear waste permanently at Yucca Mountain, Nevadans’ patience had run out. The storage site’s designation in the 1980s, she said, came during a time of increased government distrust compared to the more patriotic environment after World War II.

“(A) feeling was, we had done our share and, finally, dumping waste is not a glamorous, patriotic, sexy thing, like (testing) was when it first went off and it kind of had all that imagery associated with it,” she said. “So we went from supporting testing to not supporting waste and, now, I think we would be against either one.”

The political outcry from Democrats was swift after the report. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive challenger in the 2020 presidential election, called Trump’s reasoning “delusional.”

The Washington Post reported that Trump administration officials had raised concerns about Russia and China conducting low-yield nuclear tests. This cannot be corroborated by publicly available evidence and has been denied by both countries.

“A resumption of testing is more likely to prompt other countries to resume militarily significant nuclear testing and undermine our nuclear nonproliferation goals,” Biden said in a statement. “How can the United States persuade North Korea not to test and to give up its nuclear weapons, and how can we persuade Iran not to pursue nuclear weapons, if we set the destructive example of testing nuclear weapons for coercive purposes?”

Current testing and certification procedures of the nuclear stockpile does not include outright chain reactions or explosions, a method Biden said “by all accounts” is satisfactory today.

Titus reiterated the bill would not affect any current nuclear stockpile activities and would simply push back on any testing expansion. It’s a fight she said she and others aren’t dropping.

“We’re going to stay on top of him,” she said.

CORRECTION: This story has been clarified to reflect that U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., introduced the bill. | (June 16, 2020)