Two Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate set off a state-wide debate about the whether to resume nuclear weapons testing, leading to calls from key opinion leaders for them to reverse their position.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported last Thursday that Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater, the two Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate in Utah, indicated possible support for future underground nuclear testing. Mike Lee signed a "Peace Through Strength" pledge, organized by conservative think-tanks, which supports, "a robust defense posture including a safe, reliable, effective nuclear deterrent, which requires its modernization and testing." In an interview with the Tribune, Lee remarked that, "We need to always have our eye on the ball for developing new weapons systems and that is going to require new testing." Lee's opponent, Tim Bridgewater, made comments to similar effect, stating that he would support underground nuclear tests, "if it was deemed necessary by our military experts."
For nearly 20 years, U.S. military and technical experts have judged that there is no technical or military requirement to resume nuclear test explosions and there is no need to do so for the indefinite future. The JASON scientific advisory group has determined the United States can maintain its stockpile by extending the life of existing warhead types and does not need to resume nuclear testing. The NNSA is required to certify that the stockpile is secure and reliable each year. As a preface to the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that U.S. investments in the nuclear weapons complex and the stockpile stewardship program, "represent a credible modernization plan necessary to sustain the nuclear infrastructure and support our nation's deterrent." The directors of the three national nuclear weapons laboratories agreed with Gates, writing on April 9, "We believe that the approach outlined in the NPR, which excludes further nuclear testing and includes the consideration of the full range of life extension options... provides the necessary technical flexibility to manage the nuclear stockpile into the future with an acceptable level of risk."
Not only is a resumption of nuclear testing technically and militarily unnecessary, but it is completely out of line with the views of Utahans, who have a long and painful history with nuclear testing at the nearby Nevada Test Site and are overwhelmingly against testing.
In March, the Utah House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution urging the U.S. Senate to give its advice and consent on ratification of the CTBT. During floor debate, many lawmakers spoke about growing up in the shadow of nuclear testing, and recalled painful memories of loved ones and colleagues who had suffered health complications as "Downwinders" to nuclear testing. Ironically, both Lee and Bridgewater's fathers were Downwinders.
Lee began to backtrack on his statements before the original Tribune story ran, stating that the "Peace Through Strength" policy pledge he signed did not specifically call for nuclear test explosions.
Lee and Bridgewater emerged after incumbent Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT) failed to receive his party's nomination at the Utah GOP convention. The Utah Republican candidate for Bennett's former seat will be decided in a June 22 primary. While Bennett was noncommittal on the CTBT, he had reiterated his commitment to representing the anti-testing views of Utahans, and expressed an openness to discussing the merits of the treaty.
The Tribune also reported Thursday that the Democratic candidate for Bennett's seat, Sam Granato, issued a statement that day opposing nuclear testing: "I do not support nuclear weapons testing near Utah or anywhere else...There is no state that knows [the perils of testing] better than Utah. We received the brunt of nuclear testing for too long."
Meanwhile, The Deseret News reported Friday that Democratic Utah Congressman Jim Matheson, who is also facing a primary election in June, released a statement condemning Lee and Bridgewater's position, announcing that he will host press conference to "denounce the call from the two Utah Republican senatorial candidates to resume nuclear weapons testing" today featuring representatives of the Downwinders. "By standing united against the unsafe, unnecessary policy of nuclear testing, Utahns (sic) have won some important battles. We're ready for this new fight," Matheson said.
In response to Lee and Bridgewater, The Salt Lake Tribune published an editorial Friday criticizing the two candidate's positions, and calling for ratification of the CTBT. Citing both the human toll and the lack of scientific necessity to resume testing, the editorial board encouraged the Senate to take up the treaty.
Also on Friday, Utah political cartoonist Pat Bagley chillingly depicted the stark discrepancy between the Republican candidates' positions on testing and the terrible history of Utahan's suffering due to testing.
Utah organizers have been especially active in advocating for the ratification of the CTBT. In recent months, several top nuclear experts have visited the state to speak with community and religious groups, and local opinion leaders and lawmakers.