Ten Years After: The United States Should Resume Nuclear Testing

September 23, 2002 will mark ten years since the last nuclear test was conducted by the United States.

September 23, 2002 will mark ten years since the last nuclear test was conducted by the United States. Ten years ago, the Clinton Administration declared an indefinite nuclear test moratorium and set its goal to ban all nuclear tests forever through the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). President Clinton signed the CTBT in 1996, even though the treaty didn't even have a practical definition of what constitutes a nuclear test. India and Pakistan tested nuclear devices in 1998. In 1999, the Senate rejected the CTBT. While the Bush Administration does not support the treaty, many Clinton-era nuclear weapon policies nonetheless remain in effect, including the test ban.


For decades, nuclear tests provided data for nuclear weapon scientists and demonstrated to all, friend and foe, the credibility of American nuclear weapons and the scientific vitality of the nation's nuclear weapon complex. A nuclear test's seismic wave reverberating through the earth was an unmistakable message testifying to the readiness of America's nuclear deterrent.


Now, a "program" and a "process" have replaced nuclear testing. The "program" spends billions each year on new computers and software development for simulating nuclear weapon performance and for non-nuclear experiments. After decades of insisting that nuclear tests were essential to assure stockpile safety and reliability, the directors of our nuclear weapon science laboratories did an about-face and went along with the no-nuclear-test approach. This change, however, did not reflect any major scientific breakthroughs rendering nuclear testing obsolete. Instead, the labs were given an offer they couldn't refuse. If they went along with the no-nuclear-test approach, they would be showered with billions for the nuclear test "substitutes." If they refused, they faced major cutbacks.


An elaborate bureaucratic process of nuclear weapon certification has also been established. Each year, nuclear weapon scientists evaluate the weapons in the stockpile using the non-nuclear tools and methods now permitted to them. If a scientist concludes that a nuclear test is absolutely necessary to resolve some inescapable problem critical to the stockpile, that recommendation must go through a bureaucratic gauntlet all the way up to the President himself. There are a number of reasons why this certification process is seriously flawed: No nuclear tests are conducted to detect problems--only computer simulations and static and non-nuclear examinations of the weapons are made. This is good for detecting some problems, but without periodic nuclear testing, there is a risk that significant technical issues will not be uncovered.


The psychology of the process is also wrong. A scientist's recommendation that resumption of nuclear testing is necessary would likely be based on some arcane technical reason but would begin a process that ultimately would have monumental implications: personal, domestic, and international. It would be an admission that all those expensive computers, expensive non-nuclear testing machines, and all that expensive brainpower were not adequate to the task and fell short of their promise. No one would have told anti-nuclear President Clinton and who today would hand President Bush another problem? Without competence to critique the technical results, concurrence or opposition up the bureaucratic, military and political chain-of-command would be problematic and split along ideological lines.


Besides all this, it is simply bad policy to conduct nuclear tests only after we convince ourselves they are "broken." With an advertised policy to test only when there is a serious problem, test resumption discloses to everyone, everywhere, that the United States is facing a nuclear weapon crisis! A policy of nuclear weapon certification incorporating "routine" rather than "emergency" nuclear testing would remove this problem. Routine nuclear testing would also be consistent with sensible preventative maintenance requirements of nearly all military equipment and even consumer goods. Without daily use, periodic testing is even more important for nuclear weapons than for refrigerators, cars, and tanks.


It surely is good news that the United States no longer needs tens of thousands of nuclear weapons to threaten the Soviet Union. But with less than one-tenth of the Cold War stockpile remaining, we should be certain that the Cold War relics we keep (with their "8-track tape" technology) function when called upon. Better yet, we should configure new weapons so they are militarily useful with optimum capabilities in terms of yield, precise, rapid delivery, and so on. Unfortunately, modernization of the stockpile to optimize its future military effectiveness is hobbled by the absence of nuclear tests.


In what possible way would the United States be forced to use nuclear weapons in the future? Frankly, it is hard to predict with any certainty under what future scenarios we might need to use nuclear weapons. However, it would be foolish to assert that there are no conceivable conditions under which weapons might have to be used. After all, who anticipated the attack on the World Trade Center, or that American troops would be permanently based in Uzbekistan, of all places? One thing, however, is certain: If the United States ever uses nuclear weapons, it will not do so casually. Failure under such circumstances would not be acceptable.