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In Las Vegas, Trump’s Policies Worry a Former Nuclear Test Site Employee

By Conner Gordon
20 Oct 2016
Jack Doyle, former nuclear test manager, showcasing a display at the National Atomic Testing Museum. Photos: Conner Gordon

Throughout his campaign to become President, Donald Trump has thrived on unpredictability. He has turned press conferences into makeshift advertisements for his hotels. He has invited Bill Clinton’s sexual assault accusers to a Presidential debate, in an effort to force the former President to shake their hands as they filed past him. And in Wednesday’s Las Vegas debate, he refused to recognize the fairness of the U.S. electoral system, promising that he would keep the American public “in suspense” until after the ballots are counted.

Trump has deployed this unpredictability as an asset throughout his campaign, using it to frustrate his opponents and energize his supporters. Yet it is also this quality that worries Jack Doyle, a retired Program Manager who worked at the nuclear test site north of Las Vegas for over four decades. Now a Trustee at the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation and a volunteer at Las Vegas’ National Atomic Testing Museum, Doyle sees unpredictable leaders like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un as a key danger in the ongoing struggle to deal with nuclear proliferation. And while he believes Trump would be constrained by the United States’ system of checks and balances, Doyle still has reservations about the unpredictable style and substance around nuclear policy that the candidate has embraced.

“Whenever you’ve got a candidate for office that talks about things like that in a flip sort of way, I think that makes all people nervous,” Doyle said. “And it should, because nuclear weapons are not a flip item. They are very serious business.”

Jack Doyle at the National Atomic Testing Museum.

Doyle is well acquainted with the dangers that nuclear weapons pose. Though he began working on creating digital systems for the site’s rocket program in 1964, he soon became an Operations Manager responsible for aerial measurement systems used during underground nuclear blasts. He sat in the control room for many such tests, coordinating aircraft that documented weather and wind conditions above the blast site should something go wrong.

On December 18, 1970, something did. When a nuclear weapon goes off underground, Doyle said, the blast creates a 100-foot-wide cavity where all the surrounding rock is completely vaporized. Under most circumstances, the bomb would be buried deep enough that the rock above would collapse, effectively sealing in the radioactive discharge from the blast. But on that day, Doyle watched as damp rock above the device buckled and cracked, venting a two-mile-high cloud of radioactive gas into the atmosphere. Doyle and his team ultimately tracked the cloud’s radioactive impact as far as Pittsburgh, in what would became known as the Baneberry leak. Testing at the site was shut down for six months in wake of the accident.

During his time at the Vegas test site, Doyle worked on several such incidents. In 1977, he spent three months searching through a frigid Canada winter for remnants of a nuclear-powered Soviet satellite, which fell to earth after a malfunction prevented engineers from steering the craft, and spent time working to clean up the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979. He has also conducted radiation surveys on power plants and factories around the United States, developed incident response strategies, and partnered on studies examining various non-proliferation strategies. Throughout his work, one key focus has endured: helping ensure that nuclear testing be conducted safely.

A mannequin fragment at the museum.

It is this concern for safety that has led Doyle to be particularly concerned about Trump’s lack of seriousness and gaps in expertise surrounding nuclear weapons policy. “He has a lot of learning to do if he were to become President – about the nuclear deterrent, the nuclear shield, and that sort of thing. What it will do, what it won’t do, and more importantly, the risk it represents,” Doyle said. “And having never been in elected office, he’s never been in the forums and discussions where people globally really spend a lot of effort worrying about proliferation, about controlling those kinds of materials.”

Trump’s policy ideas surrounding nuclear proliferation have done little to assuage Doyle’s concerns. In March, Trump first suggested that countries like Japan and South Korea should start building nuclear weapons to meet threats from countries like North Korea.  Since then, Trump has remained unclear about his policy; during Wednesday’s debate, for example, he dodged a question on nuclear proliferation by asserting that NATO member countries would need to meet their payment obligations, and that the United States “cannot afford to defend Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany, South Korea and many other places.”

If such statements are any indication of the policies Trump might pursue as President, Doyle believes following through would upset the United States’ central role as a global leader for non-proliferation and nuclear policy. Contrary to Trump’s assertion that the United States cannot be “the policeman of the world,” Doyle said that the country’s role in determining nuclear policy should not be forsaken.

“What he’s doing, it kind of runs along with his criticisms that he’s made of NATO in general, that due to the cost of doing this, we can’t be the sole defender of the world,” Doyle said. “And yet, in some regards, we have to be.”

A visitor at the museum.
A visitor at the museum.

Even more concerning for Doyle are the seemingly friendly relations between Trump and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s bellicose President. In recent years, Putin’s government has begun building and deploying new nuclear weapons, as well as reportedly starting research into designs that could violate existing nuclear treaties. Such moves, which Doyle described as “saber-rattling,” have troubling implications for non-proliferation globally – a fact that, for Doyle, makes the friendly relationship between Trump and Putin all the more worrying.

“The things I see Putin doing today are not things to be proud of,” Doyle said. “In fact, they’re things that really raise the stress level of their neighbors immediately, but of everybody, us included.”

Russia’s moves are hardly the only factor complicating the state of nuclear proliferation in the world today. The New York Times recently noted that the United States’ own modernization of its nuclear stockpile could spark a move towards increasingly precise and less destructive nuclear weapons more widely – a trend that could make nuclear strikes a more appealing option to future leaders. Pariah states with nuclear weapons, most notably North Korea, have also complicated the picture in recent years.

Such trends, Doyle said, have created an environment in which issues around nuclear proliferation are being discussed with more fervor – a fact that ensures they will continue to be a controversial issue, even in a post-Cold War era.

“We had been through quite a long period where nuclear readiness was not being taken as seriously as maybe it needed to be,” Doyle said. “And I think in the last five years or so we’ve started to realize that we have to bring that nuclear readiness back up to speed.”

When evaluating the candidates to deal with such complex issues, Doyle was ultimately more optimistic about Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton. Policy aside, he argued, Clinton brings experience working and negotiating with other countries in the so-called “nuclear club,” an asset that Doyle considers particularly viable. He also said that such experience, which Trump lacks, is uniquely suited to the multifaceted and hyper-nuanced nature of nuclear policy.

“I think that kind of experience is the thing you would hope any candidate would have before they get thrust in the middle of all this kind of thing, because the first thing they realize is that those issues are not simple black and white issues,” Doyle said. “They’re extremely complex, and you have to think your way through them very carefully before you agree to something. You can be trapping yourself, if you’re not careful.”

Conner was a Graduate Fellow at the Prindle Institute from 2016-2018. Conner's writing focuses on memory, politics and culture. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Oregon.
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