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Nuclear Test Readiness

John C. Hopkins, former head of the Los Alamos Nuclear Test division, contemplates the challenges of reviving—and possibly relocating—America’s nuclear testing program.
December 1, 2016
Nuclear Test Readiness

In the 1970 Baneberry Test (left), a 10-kiloton device was detonated approximately 900 feet underground. Despite a careful geological analysis of the test site and appropriate backfilling of the test shaft, undiscovered geological features allowed the blast to breach the surface. The resulting radioactive dust plume is shown here. (Photo: Los Alamos)


  • Managing Editor
  • Clay Dillingham
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“The time delay following the decision to resume testing would, in my opinion, be dangerously long.” —John C. Hopkins

I am one of the dwindling number of people left who participated in U.S. nuclear weapons tests. I participated in five tests in the Pacific in 1962 and some 170 tests in Nevada in the 1960s through the 1980s. I witnessed another 35 or so nuclear tests.

Because I know something about the skills, equipment, facilities, and infrastructure necessary to field a full-scale nuclear test, I have grown increasingly concerned at the steady degradation of U.S. nuclear test readiness—that is, the capability of the United States to test its nuclear weapons should the need to do so arise.

In fact, my review of assessments made by the Department of Energy (DOE) of U.S. nuclear test readiness leads me to question whether the DOE has, after almost 25 years of being out of the testing business, any realistic appreciation for what nuclear testing involves or how to stay prepared to do it again within 24–36 months, as legally required by Presidential Decision Directive 15 (1993).