Nuclear Testing

Modules:

Module 1:

Introduction

1. What is nuclear testing?

Nuclear testing is the practice of detonating a nuclear device or weapon for experimental or demonstration purposes. Nuclear tests can be conducted in a variety of environments, though all but underground tests were banned by the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) of 1963  (Also known as The Partial Test Ban Treaty or PTBT):

 

1. Atmospheric Testing

  • Tests occurring aboveground or over water within Earth’s atmosphere
  • 528 of 2,055 nuclear tests to-date (including most pre-1963) were atmospheric tests. [1]
  • Purpose: to simulate conditions for most potential nuclear scenarios, to provide data on effects and to validate new nuclear weapon designs
  • Tsar Bomba, detonated by the Soviet Union in 1961, was the largest nuclear device tested with a yield of 50 megatons (the largest U.S. test, Castle Bravo, had a yield of 15 megatons). Its destructive power was equal to approximately 3,300 Hiroshima bombs. [2]

 

Video: Clip from Atomic Weapons Orientation

2. Underground Testing

  • Tests occurring underground
  • Most tests since the 1963 LTBT have been underground nuclear tests, the only type of nuclear test permitted under the treaty.
  • Purpose: to contain the fallout from a nuclear test; conducted to study weapons designs and effects.
  • While early underground tests vented radioactive material into the atmosphere, the development of sophisticated techniques to contain underground nuclear explosions made them the preferred nuclear testing technique to prevent widespread radioactive fallout. [3]

Video: Underground nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site

3. Underwater Testing

  • Testing that occurs in either deep waters (e.g., 1958 U.S. Wahoo test) or shallow waters (e.g., 1946 U.S. Baker test).
  • Only the United States (5 tests) and Soviet Union (3 tests) conducted underwater nuclear tests.
  • Purpose: to determine the military effects of nuclear weapons on naval surface ships and submarines

Video: Baker test at Bikini Atoll, 1946, the first underwater nuclear test in history

4. High-Altitude Testing

  • Tests occurring above 30km either within Earth’s atmosphere or in outer space (i.e., exoatmospheric tests) [4]
  • Only the United States (14 tests) and Soviet Union (7 tests) conducted high-altitude nuclear tests.
  • Purpose: To study the unique effects of high-altitude detonations
  • The United States’ 1962 Starfish Prime test, the largest nuclear test in outer space, destroyed or severely damaged several satellites and likely damaged electrical circuits on the ground. [5] High-altitude tests were banned both by the 1963 LTBT and the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. [6]

Video: Clip from declassified film High Altitude Nuclear Weapons Effects, produced by Stanford Research Institute, 1963

2. Why do countries conduct nuclear tests?

The U.S. Department of Defense’s Nuclear Matters Handbook lists several purposes for historical U.S. nuclear testing:

  • To “better understand nuclear physics and weapon design and functioning.” [1]
  • To “determine more accurately the nature and distances associated with nuclear detonation effects.” [2]
  • To “refine new designs in the development process.” [3]
  • To “test the yield of weapons.” [4]
  • To “confirm or define certain types of safety or yield problems found in nuclear components in weapons already fielded.” [5]
  • To “certify the design modification required to correct those problems.” [6]

Although concerns about the ability to maintain weapon reliability without testing played a significant role in the U.S. Senate’s failure to ratify the CTBT in 1999, the U.S. did not conduct nuclear weapons explosions for the purpose of establishing statistical confidence in stockpiled weapons. [7]

The U.S. never relied exclusively on nuclear explosive tests. Instead, the U.S. program used both explosive and non-explosive testing, including physics-based simulations and non-yield-bearing hydrodynamic and subcritical testing, which will be described in Module 4. [8] Other countries, such as the USSR, have cited similar reasons for conducting nuclear tests. [9]

Some countries may conduct nuclear tests for non-technical reasons, such as:

  • To deter and demonstrate. Countries may want to deter potential adversaries by demonstrating they possess operational nuclear weapons.
  • Domestic and international political reasons. Countries may use nuclear weapon tests as a way to strengthen their political positions both domestically and internationally. In the 21st century, the viability of this is debated. However, countries like North Korea that see themselves as outside of and opposed to the existing international order may see this as a viable option.
  • Historically, some nuclear tests were classified as “peaceful nuclear explosions.” Many countries, including the United States and Soviet Union, hoped to use nuclear explosive devices for civil engineering purposes. This is now widely recognized as impractical due to the radioactive contamination involved.

3. How many nuclear tests have countries conducted to date?

In the 70 years since the first nuclear test in 1945, eight different countries have conducted approximately 2,055 tests. [10]

Rotate your device horizontally to improve chart display.

Graphic Illustration indicating how many nuclear tests have been carried out by various countries

4. What are the negative consequences of nuclear testing?

The negative consequences of nuclear testing can include:

  • Increased regional and/or global instability. Testing can fuel nuclear arms races, as it did between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Neither country could stop testing for fear its adversary’s ongoing tests would enable it to develop superior nuclear warheads. Pakistan is widely understood to have begun nuclear testing in 1997 primarily in response to India’s testing program.
  • International political and economic sanctions. India, Pakistan, and North Korea all faced international criticism and some political and economic sanctions as a response to their tests, which were widely condemned for violating the evolving norm against testing following negotiation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
  • Environmental damage and clean-up cost can be significant. For example, the United States spent $45 million to clean up just one of the 60 islands composing the Rongelap Atoll. [11] And, in another example, a 1979 French nuclear test in the Moruroa Atoll, south of Tahiti, caused an underwater landslide of “one million cubic meters of coral and rock.” [12]
  • Increased human morbidity and mortality. This primarily involves significantly increased risks of cancer for affected populations, including nearby inhabitants and personnel involved with testing.
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Click on the figures below to reveal text about the effects of radiation from nuclear tests.
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Sources

[1] Department of Defense, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, The Nuclear Matters Handbook 2016, Chapter 2. http://www.acq.osd.mil/ncbdp/nm/NMHB/index.htm
[2] Department of Defense, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, The Nuclear Matters Handbook 2016, Chapter 2. http://www.acq.osd.mil/ncbdp/nm/NMHB/index.htm
[3] Department of Defense, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, The Nuclear Matters Handbook 2016, Chapter 2. http://www.acq.osd.mil/ncbdp/nm/NMHB/index.htm
[4] Department of Defense, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, The Nuclear Matters Handbook 2016, Chapter 2. http://www.acq.osd.mil/ncbdp/nm/NMHB/index.htm
[5] Department of Defense, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, The Nuclear Matters Handbook 2016, Chapter 2. http://www.acq.osd.mil/ncbdp/nm/NMHB/index.htm
[6] Department of Defense, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, The Nuclear Matters Handbook 2016, Chapter 2. http://www.acq.osd.mil/ncbdp/nm/NMHB/index.htm
[7] National Academy of Sciences, Technical Issues Related to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2002: 21.
[8] Department of Defense, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, The Nuclear Matters Handbook 2016, Chapter 2. http://www.acq.osd.mil/ncbdp/nm/NMHB/index.htm
[9] Andryushin, I.A., V.V. Bogdan, S.A. Zelentsov, R.I. Il’kaev, V.N. Mikhailov, G.A. Tsyrkov and A.K. Chernyshev, editors, Yadernye Ispytaniya SSSR [Nuclear Tests of the USSR], Volume 1, Sarov: RFNC-VNIIEF, 1997: 17.
[10] “The Legacy of Nuclear Testing,” International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Accessed November 10, 2015. http://www.icanw.org/the-facts/catastrophic-harm/the-legacy-of-nuclear-testing/
[11] Agence France Press in Majuro, “Bikini Atoll nuclear test: 60 years later and islands still unliveable” 2014.
[12] Robbins, Anthony, “Environmental Effects of French Nuclear testing,” Radioactive Heaven and Earth, New York: Apex Press, 1991, Accessed November 5, 2015. http://canterbury.cyberplace.org.nz/peace/nukenviro.html#enviro

Slideshow Sources

[1] “The Nuclear Testing Tally,” Arms Control Association, Last modified September 2016, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/nucleartesttally

[2] “30 October 1961 – The Tsar Bomba,” CTBTO Preparatory Commission, https://www.ctbto.org/specials/testing-times/30-october-1961-the-tsar-bomba

[3] Layton, Julia, “Is It Possible to Test a Nuclear Weapon without Producing Radioactive Fallout,” Science How Stuff Works, Accessed November 10, 2015, http://science.howstuffworks.com/nuclear-test2.htm
[4] Glasstone, Samuel and Phillip J. Dolan, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, 3rd ed, Washington, DC: Department of Defense and Energy Research and Development Administration, 1977: p 10.
[5] Conrad, Edward E., Gerald A. Gurtman, Glenn Kweder, Myron J. Mandell and Willard W. White, Collateral Damage to Satellites from an EMP Attack, Fort Belvoir: Defense Threat Reduction Agency, 2010: p i; Vittitoe, Charles N. Did High-Altitude EMP Cause the Hawaiian Streetlight Incident? System Design and Assessment Notes, Note 31, Albuquerque: Sandia National Laboratories, June 1989: p 22; National Academy of Sciences, Evaluation of Methodologies for Estimating Vulnerability to Electromagnetic Pulse Effect, Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1984: p 9.
[6] “Types of Nuclear Weapons Tests,” Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, Accessed December 2016, https://www.ctbto.org/nuclear-testing/history-of-nuclear-testing/types-of-nuclear-weapons-tests/

Photo Credit
Header Image: Nuclear weapon test by the U.S. military at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia. Source: DoD via WikiMedia Commons.