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The Bush Administration's Campaign for a Return to Nuclear Testing

Contact: Robert S. Norris, NRDC's Nuclear Program, 202-289-2369
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(May 2003) -- Key Bush administration officials are now saying that the current U.S. nuclear arsenal -- a subset of what was in place at the end of the Cold War -- will not be adequate for the future. That arsenal was largely developed and deployed in the 1970s and 1980s to deter the former Soviet Union and carry out the nuclear war plan known as the Single Integrated Operational Plan, or SIOP. According to these officials, the Pentagon may need to significantly modify or even design new nuclear weapons to accomplish particular military missions, such as destroying hard and deeply buried targets.

The administration is planning to revitalize the entire nuclear weapon complex so that it could, if directed, design, develop, manufacture and certify new warheads. One essential activity in this process would be testing new warhead designs. In expectation of that possibility, the administration has recommended that the Nevada Test Site drastically reduce the amount of time it would take to resume testing. NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) sees this initiative as the first step toward resuming testing and designing a new generation of nuclear weapons if President Bush wins a second term.

Does the United States Need to Test?

The last U.S. nuclear test took place on September 23, 1992. On October 2, Congress imposed a testing moratorium. Over the next four years the moratorium was extended several times until President Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on September 24, 1996, precluding any further testing. To ensure the safety, security and reliability of the stockpile in the absence of testing, the Energy Department established a science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program. Congress has funded the program at levels equal to or greater than those spent to maintain the stockpile during the Cold War at the three national laboratories responsible for the nuclear stockpile, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia.

The administration argues that although the Stockpile Stewardship Program has adequately certified the stockpile's reliability every year, it also needs to prepare for the possibility that it may be necessary to resume testing. Therefore, it insists that U.S. nuclear facilities must halve the time it would take to conduct a test, once a decision had been made, from 36 months to 18 months.

The administration claims that testing is necessary to maintain the reliability of warheads in the stockpile. In fact, the safety and reliability of stockpiled warheads always has depended on an aggressive surveillance program, not test explosions. Each year the Energy Department randomly selects stockpiled warheads, takes them apart, and subjects them to exacting technical analysis and diagnostic procedures to discover design flaws, manufacturing problems or aging effects. There are many materials in a nuclear weapon, including metals, high explosives, polymers and ceramics.1 The aging of any one of these materials could affect weapon performance.

This surveillance regime, which always has been the mainstay of the U.S. approach, was strengthened after Congress increased funding for the stewardship program in 1992. The investment has paid off, making testing unnecessary. According to a 2002 National Academy of Sciences report, "Even in the absence of constraints on nuclear testing, no need was ever identified for a program that would periodically subject stockpile weapons to nuclear tests."2

The argument over the stockpile's reliability is likely a smokescreen for the real reason advocates want to resume testing: They want to design new warheads. Experts agree that testing would be necessary to certify the performance of new designs. High-speed computers and other diagnostic tools are not yet as good as a test explosion in assessing a new design's performance. Proponents of new weapons most often cite the need for a low-yield, nuclear earth penetrator (see the May 2003 NRDC backgrounder, "The Administration's Misguided Quest for Low-Yield Nuclear Bunker Busters").

Implications of Resuming Testing

If the United States resumed testing, it would signal to other nuclear powers that it is permissible to start testing again. Not all would. Great Britain has jointly tested with the United States over the past 40 years at the Nevada Test Site, but it would not formally initiate a new testing program of its own. France has closed its testing site in the South Pacific and it would be difficult to find another location to test. But Russia and China likely would resume testing, as would India and Pakistan, who would encounter less opposition from the rest of the world than when they tested in 1998. And it would not be surprising if North Korea conducted a nuclear test. None of these probabilities would enhance U.S. nonproliferation goals or national security.

last revised 6.02.03


1. Brian Fishbine, "Shelf Life Guaranteed: Extending the Life of Nuclear Weapons," Los Alamos Research Quarterly, Winter 2003, p. 5-8.

2. National Academy of Sciences, "Technical Issues Related to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty," Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2002, p. 3.

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