THE US decision to hold its first non-explosive nuclear test in June, with a second one expected in the fall, has been greeted with dismay and consternation. Both tests—termed "subcritical experiments" by the Department of Energy (DOE)—are to be held at the Nevada test site, an underground complex earlier known as the Low-Yield Nuclear Explosions Research (LYNER) facility. According to the DOE, the new round of underground tests are designed to ensure the reliability of the US nuclear stockpile without breaking the international ban on testing.
The DOE announcement came at a particularly awkward time—on the eve of an international meeting on the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty that convened in New York from April 7 to April 18. A chorus of protests have been heard around the country denouncing the tests, calling for their immediate cancellation and declaring that the high international, political and non-proliferation costs far outweigh the dubious technical utility of the experiments.
For his part, Energy Secretary Frederico Pena explained: "Subcritical experiments are essential to our commitments to a world free of nuclear testing and a reliable nuclear deterrent and are fully consistent with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)." He added that they are "an essential component of the department's programme for ensuring the safety and reliability of the (nuclear weapons) stockpile".
The subcritical tests involve nuclear materials such as plutonium but do not trigger a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction that would cause an explosion. Although subcritical nuclear testing is not prohibited under the CTBT, adopted by the UN General Assembly last September, anti-nuclear
activists say the US plan would go against the global trend of nuclear disarmament.
In a subcritical nuclear test, researchers study the initial stage of nuclear fission before the point at which an explosion occurs. Knowledge of the initial stage of nuclear fission makes it possible to study simulations of nuclear weapons. The detonations 980 ft underground are supposed to help scientists determine how parts of a warhead, including the small amount of plutonium, behave under explosive pressure. This information is later used to develop computer models that simulate actual nuclear detonation.
Energy Department scientists emphasise that each of the two tests will involve chemical, not nuclear, explosions. They say the largest explosion would be equivalent to 81 pounds of TNT. Although small amounts of plutonium—about a pound for each of three charges in the first test—will be present, the package is designed so that a nuclear chain reaction will not be effected.
The tests are "fully consistent" with the CTBT signed by President Bill Clinton in September, says Joan Rohlfing, deputy assistant secretary for national security. She adds that the test "will not in any way facilitate new weapons development".
Plans had been announced in late 1995 for a series of six such tests, with the first four expected last year. But the tests were delayed for a host of reasons, including problems developing an environmental impact statement and to get an independent scientific review, said Rohlfing.
The Administration released a review by an independent panel of scientists saying that the tests would add "valuable scientific information" on the performance of nuclear weapons. This review has been challenged by other scientific groups who contend that the DOE has not demonstrated that it cannot maintain the safety of the existing
nuclear arsenal without subcritical experiments or that these experiments are essential at this time to carry out current policy directives.
The announcement, which had been expected for some time, caused a string of protests by anti-nuclear activists who blocked routes to the Nevada test site and barricaded gates to the site. Twenty-two protesters were arrested when they blocked highway traffic by chaining themselves to concrete-filled barrels.
Anti-nuclear groups believe that the experiments send a negative signal to other nations that are thinking about whether they should build nuclear weapons. They believe the tests could also be a prelude to renewed nuclear testing and development of new weapon designs.
An arms control expert said that while the tests were allowed under the international test ban, they should be conducted above ground instead of underground, so that outsiders could check whether the tests are legitimate. "There's no verification mechanism to say you're actually doing what you say you're doing," says Kevin O'Neill, deputy director of the Institute for Science and International Security. "To everybody else it may look like a nuclear test."
Critics are questioning the contention by DOE scientists that the experiments are required to ensure that the existing nuclear stockpile is reliable. They argue that scaled-back tests at weapons laboratories can develop the information needed. "The programme they have put together is vastly larger and more expensive than what is needed. It's a programme that, if it were ultimately successful, would also enable them to design new weapons without testing," says Tom Cochran of the Natural
Resources Defence Council. Cochran says nuclear non-proliferation efforts "would be better served" if the Nevada test site were closed down.
Observes Daryl Kimball of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a national organisation with 20,000 members committed to addressing the environmental and health impacts of nuclear arms production: "Nuclear-capable states such as India and Pakistan are concerned that the US may be able to continue nuclear weapons development through the laboratory-based, 'stockpile stewardship' programme, including activities such as subcritical experiments. Besides, the Clinton Administration has failed to thoroughly evaluate of the nuclear arms control and non-proliferation impacts of conducting such activities, particularly the impact of such experiments on securing the entry-into-force of the CTBT."
Explains Leonard Spector of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: "These tests are in the zero-yield area. They are tests of non-nuclear components together with tiny quantities of nuclear material in the centre but no fission. It is opposed by many countries. The US has to ensure that its weapons are safe and hence it will continue to do so by these means. Once the CTBT goes into effect, such tests will still be permitted theoretically. I am sure it will make many friendly states wonder whether we are serious or not about the CTBT. "
SPECTOR speculated on how reports of the tests would play in Delhi where the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement had just denounced the nuclear powers. Referring to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's address at the NAM conference, he said: "I am sure he will tip his hat to NAM, but will urge India, perhaps privately, to sign the CTBT." Others argue that technically the US is on sound ground but is violating the spirit of the CTBT. Ed Lyman, scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute, says: "We believe that the vast majority of this work is unnecessary and needlessly destabilising. It doesn't contradict the letter of the CTBT but it contradicts the spirit. The rest of the world is going to assume that the US has not constrained itself at all. We find it troubling. These subcritical tests can only breed suspicion. The official rationale for the tests is to maintain the safety and reliability of the nuclear stockpile. Basically, it is an expensive sideshow and we are absolutely opposed to it."
There is also opposition to the tests on scientific grounds. Mike Krepon of the Henry L. Stimson Center points out the difference between "underground nuclear weapons tests" and "these zero-yield experiments". Says he: "Our labs are eager to carry out zero-yield experiments that have no nuclear fission and that are absolutely undetectable in terms of seismic activity. I think it's a dumb idea but it will provide something for them (the nuclear establishment) to do. They have a huge operation going and lots of people employed. It is not wise but not dangerous." There is also an apprehension that these tests could provoke nations like India to continue with their nuclear program-mes with renewed gusto. Krepon points out: "They are experiments, not tests, and could be carried out in a lab anywhere, even in Mumbai or New Delhi, without being detected.
I am sure that all of this debate will reverberate in India and be completely misconstrued in India's domestic politics." Agrees South Asia expert Steven Cohen: "The tests certainly don't strengthen our moral position." Bruce Hall, a nuclear weapons campaigner for Greenpeace International, sums up the anti-test argument: "The US has the opportunity to drive the nuclear disarmament process forward, but it could also inadvertently drive the world right back into a nuclear arms race." Meanwhile, a group of Japanese survivors of the 1945 US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have joined US rallies against the planned tests. Thirteen delegates from the Japan Congress Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs (Gensuikin) are in Nevada to participate in an antinuclear workshop sponsored by native Americans. The group will travel to New York to join in calls for the abolition of nuclear arms.