Gov. Brian Sandoval on Tuesday addressed a stunning TIME magazine cover story asserting that President Donald Trump’s administration may restart nuclear testing in Nevada not for scientific reasons but as a show of force to other nations.
The article, published earlier this month with a 1952 photo of a mushroom cloud on the cover, described the administration’s accelerating nuclear arms race and noted Trump’s statements in his State of the Union address that he wanted to rebuild the nuclear arsenal, “making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression.” The article’s most sensitive assertion — that tests would resume for political purposes — was attributed to an unnamed National Nuclear Security Administration official.
“That was a story that I woke up to and was immediately on the phone,” Sandoval said at a Board of Examiners meeting. “And again, having several conversations with individuals in Washington … I’ve received absolute, 100 percent confirmation that there will not be testing of that coming.”
The U.S. hasn’t tested a nuclear weapon since 1992, but a skeleton crew remains at the Nevada National Security Site in Nye County, where many bombs were detonated during the Cold War. Last year, the Trump administration ordered the Department of Energy to be ready for testing within six months, according to the TIME story.
“The actual information in the article simply reports what most of us has been hearing for the last 10 months or so — that there’s a policy review, a consideration on whether nuclear arms development should proceed, and if it proceeds, is testing necessary?” said Robert Halstead of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects. “The old question that for 25 years we’ve answered no [is] that testing is not necessary to verify the capability of the existing nuclear arsenal.”
Halstead said that to his knowledge, no resumption of testing has been ordered, and pointed to the Nuclear Posture Review document released shortly after the TIME article was published. It said the country “will continue to observe a nuclear test moratorium that began in 1992.”
Nevertheless, Halstead said his agency will continue to closely monitor defense and Department of Energy budget requests. Summaries, but not the full proposals, were released on Monday.
Critics say the consequences of the U.S. resuming testing in the Nevada desert could be dire. In an interview with The Nevada Independent last week, Philip Coyle, a former test director at the site, predicted that it would lead to an increase in testing around the world.
“All hell would break loose,” he said. “It would be a very dangerous time.”
Coyle, a board member at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said that even underground tests sometimes leaked radioactivity, which wind could carry into Utah. The tests also created tremors that could shake hotels miles away.
“That probably wouldn’t be good for Las Vegas [tourism],” he added. “The gaming business was part of the reason underground testing stopped.”
Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske reminded attendees of the plight of Downwinders — people living in Nevada and nearby states who were sickened, sometimes fatally, by the nuclear byproducts of weapons testing.
“I’ve been really surprised over the years how far that reached and how far it went,” she said at the meeting. “So it is something Nevadans are still talking about. It’s still an issue.”
Despite the TIME report, Coyle believed there was a “very low” likelihood that the administration would resume testing. He said it would damage Trump’s reputation and lead to huge protests.
“You’d have protests all over Las Vegas like you’ve never had before,” he said.