View Point

By Michael Jones

Friday, June 7, 1996


Upcoming tests stir suspicion
about U.S. nuclear policy

Last October the U.S. Department of Energy announced plans to conduct six "subcritical experiments" 900 feet underground at the Nevada Test Site. The first two experiments are planned for June 18 and Sept. 12 to be followed by four more in 1997.

These experiments will involve detonation of 50 to 500 pounds of explosives near plutonium and other materials used in nuclear weapons. But these tests are designed to prevent the initiation of the self-sustaining nuclear reaction which is necessary to produce a large explosive release of energy. Thus these experiments are much different from the nuclear weapons tests that have been done at the Nevada Test Site in the past.

Because the subcritical tests will not produce a self-sustaining nuclear reaction, the U.S. position is that they will comply with a "zero yield" Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The Department of Energy contends that these tests are necessary to understand the effects of aging of materials used in nuclear weapons and thus to ensure the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons.

The experiments have several troublesome aspects. Doing these tests at the Nevada site, which is being maintained to retain the capability to resume nuclear weapons tests, raises suspicions that the United States is continuing to develop nuclear weapons. The subcritical tests will complicate verification of the CTBT because it will be difficult to distinguish them from those which produce small nuclear yields.

Having the first test during the last stage of negotiations on the CTBT raises doubts about the U.S. commitment to the treaty and could delay its completion.

Information scarce

The lack of detailed information about the planned tests leaves it unclear whether they are primarily relevant to reducing the possibility of accidental explosions (safety) or to maintaining confidence that aging nuclear weapons will perform as designed (reliability). There is also insufficient information to judge to what extent data from these experiments might be useful in designing new weapons.

At a meeting of the American Physical Society in May, during a session on the CTBT, there was a report by a member of the Jason group of scientists (a panel of scientists experienced with weapons-related technology) who had examined scientific and technical implications of a complete ban of nuclear testing.

This group concluded that the United States could support the "zero yield" option for the CTBT provided that facilities were maintained to allow experiments necessary to study properties of aging materials in U.S. nuclear weapons. I asked whether the subcritical experiments had been evaluated by the Jason group. The response indicated the group had not found any serious problems with these experiments, but had not spent much time analyzing them. Without more detailed information, it is not possible to make an independent evaluation.

The broader, long-term question raised by these subcritical tests in particular and by the DOE Stockpile Stewardship program in general is whether the U.S. intends to maintain its nuclear forces indefinitely or to end nuclear weapons development (a stated goal since the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty) and to pursue nuclear disarmament expeditiously.

There is likely to be increasing international pressure on the U.S. and other nuclear powers to honor the pledge made at the 1995 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference to "systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons."

Policies conflict

However, the 1994 Defense Department Nuclear Posture Review indicates that the U.S. plans to maintain a large nuclear arsenal and the capability to design and test new weapons for the forseeable future. Continuing this policy will make it even more difficult to achieve another U.S. goal of halting proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

It seems doubtful that the non-proliferation treaty will continue to be effective in restraining proliferation unless the United States and the other nuclear powers substantially reduce their nuclear arsenals and demonstrate that they are serious about eliminating nuclear weapons.

I do not believe that the Department of Energy has made a convincing case that the planned subcritical experiments are essential. Going ahead with them could delay completion of the CTBT and impede efforts to stop nuclear proliferation.

I urge Hawaii members of Congress to ask the DOE and the Clinton administration to reassess these experiments; it is especially important for people concerned about these tests to contact Sen. Daniel Akaka, who serves on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Energy Department.

The broader issue that needs more congressional and public attention is the conflict between U.S. treaty commitments to eliminate nuclear weapons and the current policy of maintaining a large nuclear arsenal, as well as facilities providing the capability to develop new weapons, for the forseeable future.

Which future do we want?

We need to decide between this view of the future and that offered by U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference in April of 1995:

"The most safe, sure and swift way to deal with the threat of nuclear arms is to do away with them in every regard. This should be our vision of the future. No more testing. No more production. No more sales or transfers. Reduction and destruction of all nuclear weapons and the means to make them should be humanity's great common cause."



Michael Jones is a physicist at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent official positions of the UH Physics Department or the university.




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