The Coastal Post - May, 1996

U.S. Nuclear Experiments Threaten Test Ban

Since 1945 the world has lived under the cloud of over 2,000 nuclear tests. These tests have harmed human health and the environment, squandered economic resources and driven a dangerous arms race. Enough is enough! The nations of the world can and must reach agreement this year on a Comprehensive Test Ban (CTB) Treaty that will ban all nuclear tests worldwide.

Responding to mounting grassroots pressure, President Clinton has embraced the CTB. He has given U.S. negotiators at the test ban talks in Geneva specific instructions—secure this long-sought accord by the end of June, 1996. Unfortunately, not everyone in the administration seems to have gotten the message.

The Department of Energy's (DOE) nuclear weapons design laboratories, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos, plan to begin conducting underground weapons-related "subcritical" nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site this June. The DOE says the experiments will not produce a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, hence the term "subcritical."

Various report indicate each of these planned tests will detonate between 50 and 500 pounds of high explosive charge and involve undisclosed amounts of special nuclear material, including bomb-grade plutonium. The DOE says the first two underground blasts, scheduled for this year, will not utilize actual nuclear warheads, warhead prototypes, or weapons configurations. However, Department officials refused to rule out the possibility of using weapons configurations in the four tests already proposed for 1997.

According to the DOE, these underground tests are part of its "stockpile stewardship" program, along with above-ground nuclear weapons experiments on the National Ignition Facility and other exotic, stadium-sized machines.

The two "subcritical" blasts planned for 1996 will presumably give the weapons labs and DOE additional data on the behavior of plutonium in a "strongly-shocked" state. Retired Livermore Lab physicists say this data will be used to improve the nuclear weapons codes. In other words, these tests will enhance the super-computer modeling of nuclear weapon performance that underlies the development of new warhead designs.

The DOE says these tests are needed to improve the knowledge of the dynamic properties of aged nuclear material (though plutonium 239 has a half-life of over 24,000 years) in order to assess the effects of new manufacturing techniques on weapons materials. Additionally, the DOE states the tests will help maintain the capabilities of the Nevada Test Site and support nuclear testing "readiness." Each of these six planned experiments will cost an estimated $20 million.

The first test is scheduled for June 18 and the second for September 12, with four more to follow in 1997. Thus, at the very moment our negotiators will be trying to seal the deal on a test ban in Geneva, our weaponeers will be honing their deadly expertise at the test site in Nevada. Some might say the DOE and the labs haven't carefully considered the potential implications these blasts could have on the final, delicate phase of the CTB negotiations. Others may suggest that the weapons-addicted labs and DOE have, indeed, chosen their start date with conscious deliberation. In either case, the impact on the CTB could prove fatal.

Clinton has said the CTB would '"create another barrier to nuclear proliferation and nuclear weapons development." The administration has also talked about the CTB in the context of total nuclear disarmament, however actions do not match the words. These "subcritical" tests, along with NIF and other new weapons research facilities, reinforce the concern that the U.S. nuclear weapons labs are trying to circumvent the development barrier with a technological end-run around the treaty. Further, "subcritical" tests with the intent to assess the long-term performance of plutonium in weaponry say to the rest of the world that, "treaty obligations be damned, our nuclear weapons are here to stay."

If Clinton is serious about a permanent end to nuclear tests, he would cancel these "subcritical" blasts, terminate the proposed NIF and redirect funding to convert the Nevada Test Site and Livermore Lab.

— Citizen's Watch