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Lab Testing Undermines Test Ban and NPT

By Jacqueline Cabasso, Disarmament Times, vol.17 no.6, 22 November 1994

The United States, Russia, France and U.K. are currently observing a moratorium on underground nuclear testing while negotiations on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) inch along in the Conference on Disarmament. But nuclear testing, in essence, is going forward at the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Laboratories in Livermore, California, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, under the guise of "Stockpile Stewardship."

Nuclear testing is continuing by proxy, through Above-Ground hydrodynamic Experiments (AGEX), Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF), computer modeling, and other technologically sophisticated techniques. Additionally, the Labs are urging resumption of very low yield "hydronuclear" tests underground at the Nevada Test Site. These programs, by providing a means for nuclear weapons designers to continue their deadly pursuits, subvert the primary purpose of a CTBT - to cut off nuclear weapons development -- and undermine the proclaimed U.S goal of non-proliferation by sending a hypocritical message to other countries: "Do as we say, not as we do."

"Stockpile stewardship" sounds innocuous, but what does it really mean?

Legislation passed last year by the U.S. Congress established a Stockpile Stewardship Program, "to ensure the preservation of the core intellectual and technical competencies of the United States in nuclear weapons, including weapons design, system integration, and certification." The Labs maintain that Stockpile Stewardship include keeping the weapons design teams together and ensuring their ability to develop and produce new nuclear weapons in the future. John Immele, Associate Director for Nuclear Weapons Technology at Los Alamos, in a December 1993 talk, stated that the aim of AGEX is "the full integration of the kind of capabilities that we've always been able to achieve in developing nuclear warheads and in our nuclear testing program. In order to carry out this "new" mission, the Labs are lobbying vigorously for huge new high- tech projects, including the $1.1 billion ICF National Ignition Facility at Livermore and the $117 billion AGEX Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility at Los Alamos.

Disarmament advocates believe that stockpile stewardship should mean passive caretaking of the existing arsenal under safe conditions, while it awaits dismantlement, pursuant to the U.S. obligation under Article VI of the NPT to pursue disarmament. This kind of stewardship would give rise to a completely different set of largely non-technical requirements, such as inspectors and guards (preferably international).

These divergent views raise fundamental questions about U.S. nuclear weapons policy, which will determine the technological requirements for stockpile stewardship. But what is U.S. policy?

The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) recently completed by the Clinton Administration reaffirms decades-old U.S. policies, including rejection of a "no first use" pledge, and projects no arms cuts below START II levels (see DISARMAMENT TIMES, 24 October 1994). The NPR is clear in regard to expectations for laboratory testing. It explicitly requires the Department of Energy (DOE) not only to "demonstrate capability to refabricate and certify weapon types in [the] enduring stockpiles," but also to "maintain capability to design, fabricate, and certify new warheads."

Despite the end of the Cold War justification, the U.S. is spending over $20 billion a year on nuclear weapons-related programs. Over 65% goes to maintain or expand the U.5. nuclear arsenal, including procurement of new delivery systems such as the Trident II (D5) ballistic missile, while only 5% goes to dismantle or retire nuclear weapons. Most of the remaining 30% goes to address the horrendous environmental legacy of weapons production.

The 1995 DOE budget provides more than $1.5 billion for nuclear weapons research, development and testing, including continued support for studies of new weapons systems (an ICBM replacement warhead and a gravity bomb) as well as upgrades and modifications of existing nuclear warheads (enhanced safety warheads for the Navy and plutonium pit reuse studies). The Air Force is working with Los Alamos to determine whether a generic nuclear warhead that could be put on ICBMs, SLBMs, bombs, or cruise missiles could be given a simple design, so that a new generation of scientist could follow a "recipe" if needed.

Although a sweeping DOE plan to build a new nuclear weapons production complex is dead, modernization of the existing complex is now underway, primarily at the Labs. Earlier this year, Livermore's director told Congress, "We are assuming stewardship of production capability as the production plants are being closed... Replacement warhead options and the future production capability will be designed together." Livermore is already operating a prototype facility to produce plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons using an experimental die- casting technique, and other nuclear weapons production functions are being relocated to Livermore and Los Alamos.

A 28 October 1994 announcement by the DOE that it will prepare a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on "Stockpile Stewardship and Management" leaves no doubt about U.S. intentions. The DOE Notice states: "Stockpile stewardship includes activities required to maintain a high level of confidence in the safety, reliability, and performance of nuclear weapons in the absence of underground testing, and to be prepared to test weapons if directed by the President. Stockpile management activities include maintenance, evaluation, repair or replacement of weapons in the existing stockpile."

The truth is, nuclear weapons are not legitimate instruments of national policy -- for any nation. But, by maintaining nuclear weapons research, development and production capabilities and continuing to threaten use of the weapons, the U.S. is legitimizing nuclear weapons and further entrenching an international double standard in an increasingly uncertain world. Laboratory testing, in a test ban/non-proliferation regime, will ensure for the U.S. and its nuclear buddies, an overwhelming technological advantage over non-nuclear weapons states.

Progress toward a CTBT will be a determining factor in negotiation on extension of the NPT next April, but much more needs to be done if the non- proliferation regime in to be meaningfully strengthened. If the U.S. is serious about stemming the spread of nuclear weapons, it must take leadership in ending the nuclear double standard, and make disarmament and eventual abolition of nuclear weapons a top priority.

(Jacqueline Cabasso is Executive Director of the Western States Legal Foundation, an anti-nuclear advocacy group in Oakland, California.)

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