On the Front Lines Against Nuclear Testing

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), Ploughshares Fund is dedicating a series of blogs on how the treaty influences nuclear disarmament today. The LTBT was the first concrete step toward the elimination of nuclear testing. Under the LTBT, U.S. research and development on nuclear weapons is still permitted in the national laboratories. One of the groups working to convert this weapons development actvity into socially beneficial research is our grantee, Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment). We asked Tri-Valley CAREs Executive Director Marylia Kelley for her insights on how the LTBT impacts her work and what more can be done to stop nuclear testing.  

Ploughshares Fund: The LTBT banning atmospheric, oceanic and outer space testing of nuclear weapons turned fifty this year but it is a treaty that we don’t often hear about. How important is the LTBT to your work at Tri-Valley CAREs?

Marylia Kelley: Tri-Valley CAREs “watchdogs” the Livermore nuclear weapons laboratory and the Nuclear Weapons Complex of which Livermore Lab is a part. Every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal is designed at the Livermore Lab in California or the Los Alamos Lab in New Mexico. Preventing the further development of nuclear weapons has been integral to Tri-Valley CAREs' mission since the group’s founding in 1983. The LTBT of 1963 is both preparatory and vital to our work today because it did stop atmospheric nuclear testing. Radioisotopes from U.S. and global atmospheric nuclear tests were turning up in mothers’ milk and babies’ teeth. Popular outcry in the early 1960s was instrumental in achieving the LTBT and its passage was a clear victory for human health. However, it is also important to note that passage of the LTBT did not halt the development of nuclear weapons in the U.S. or globally. Rather, it drove nuclear weapons development underground (literally and metaphorically). Thus, the goal of stopping the further enhancement of nuclear weapons, which is an essential step toward their abolition, remains to be achieved - in the U.S. and globally.

PF: What do you think is most surprising to the public when you talk to them about issues related to nuclear testing?

MK: As Tri-Valley CAREs’ executive director I am called on to speak to diverse audiences, from high school and college classrooms to senior centers and business clubs. I find that many of us who underwent “duck and cover” drills viscerally understand the importance of completing the job of achieving nuclear disarmament. Still, the seniors to whom I speak are shocked to find out that the U.S. is spending more money this year on nuclear weapons development than was spent annually during the Cold War. When I speak with students and other younger people for whom the Cold War is ancient history, they are often surprised to learn that the U.S. possesses more than 7,500 nuclear weapons (with Russia having similar numbers) and that nuclear annihilation in this day and age could still come by accident, miscalculation, madness or malevolent intent.  One piece of good news is that the general public regardless of age, background or political affiliation seems able to find common ground in disapproving the exploding costs of nuclear development. And, many young people in particular are able to connect the dots between nuclear weapons and issues with which they are more familiar, like globalization and economic and climate justice. 

PF: How do Tri-Valley CAREs efforts today relate to the testing of nuclear weapons?

MK: As the watchdog over the Livermore laboratory, Tri-Valley CAREs activities relate directly to nuclear weapons testing. It has always been the nation’s two nuclear weapons design labs, Livermore and Los Alamos, along with engineers at Sandia Lab, who have prepared the weapons tests and have conducted them, be it in the atmosphere, underground or in the labs, albeit not full scale nowadays. Moreover, if you go to the nuclear test site in Nevada today and you tour the BEEF (Big Explosives Experimental Facility) you may notice that everyone is wearing Livermore Lab badges. In sum, nuclear testing is the basis for the continued development of nuclear weapons – whether it is done by yesteryears’ full-scale blasts or by today’s “proxy testing” with sophisticated equipment in the labs. Tri-Valley CAREs believes that all current testing activities that lead to new and militarily “modified” nuclear weapons must be stopped. The U.S. should instead adopt a “Curatorship” program that would maintain but not “improve” the arsenal as it awaits dismantlement.

PF: The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is a follow-on to the LTBT that bans all explosive nuclear weapons testing, but the U.S. has yet to ratify the CTBT. How important do you think it is for the U.S. to ratify CTBT? How would its ratification affect your work at Tri-Valley CAREs?

MK: Tri-Valley CAREs has sought a CTBT since the group’s inception in 1983. Our members have slept at “peace camp” in the Nevada desert for it prior to the testing moratorium in 1992; and we have regularly done educational work for the CTBT in the U.S. Congress and at the U.N. during the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conferences and preparatory meetings. There is no question the U.S. should ratify the treaty and help propel its international entry into force. Tri-Valley CAREs believes that delegitimizing nuclear weapons is key to achieving disarmament and global entry into force of the CTBT is a positive step in that necessary direction. Yet, technically, the treaty bans the “bang” and not the “bomb.” The weaponeers at Livermore and Los Alamos have been busily constructing huge facilities, from an underground subcritical nuclear test complex to a dual axis radiographic hydrodynamic test facility to supercomputers and beyond to allow them to further modify and develop U.S. nuclear weapons in the absence of full-scale nuclear testing. This has been going on in the labs and throughout the Nuclear Weapons Complex since the last full-scale underground test in 1992. Therefore, following our huge celebration with cake and ice cream to welcome U.S. ratification of the CTBT, our work at Tri-Valley CAREs would continue onward to the elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide.

PF: Having started Tri-Valley CAREs as a concerned citizen, what advice would you give individuals who care about reducing the threat of nuclear weapons but may not feel like they have a pathway to engage on the issue and effect change?

MK: One of the most exciting aspects of working for nuclear disarmament is that its achievement requires all of us to bring our talents, skills, energy, good will and motivation to the issue. So, the first thing a person can do is “show up.” Be counted. We can all do that. I also tell people that if there is a peace and disarmament group in your area, join it. And, if there isn’t, start one. Working collaboratively means you are becoming part of the solution. Nuclear weapons are inherently undemocratic, violent and unjust. The path to their abolition involves creating the outcome we seek – a more peaceful, just and sustainable world – as part of the process we use to get there. Each person’s pathway begins where they are today. Take the first step, and then the second. Watch and be amazed at what will open up in front of you. Thirty years ago, Tri-Valley CAREs began with a handful of people who wanted to make a change. We stopped a radioactive waste incinerator, won improvements to the cleanup program for toxic wastes oozing into the community, prevented the development of two new nuclear weapons, and, in the process, grew from eight to more than 5,000 members strong, including some physicists from Livermore Lab.


Photo by: Peter Fedewa