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Simulating Nuclear Explosions under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

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The U.S. government has adopted a less than candid approach -- both substantive and rhetorical -- to the CTB objective of "constraining the development and qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons and ending the development of advanced new types of nuclear weapons (emphasis added)."

  • First, as the "Green Book" makes abundantly clear, the U.S. government does not subscribe to the view that the test ban should or will constrain "qualitative improvement" of nuclear weapons when these improvements take the form of new-design non-nuclear components, or modifications to the nuclear components of already explosively tested designs, even if such modifications previously "required" certification by underground nuclear tests, or constitute a new or improved military capability.

  • Second, the U.S. government clearly intends to maintain under the CTBT, and indeed significantly enhance, its scientific and technical capabilities for undertaking "development of advanced new types of nuclear weapons," despite the probable requirement for certification of such advanced designs by nuclear tests and the lack of any forseeable post Cold War requirement for such exotic devices.

  • Third, the Department of Energy and the Strategic Systems Program Office of the Navy are already embarked on a program to design, develop, prototype, and flight test an indisputably new-design warhead for the Trident II missile to replace the current W76 and W88 warheads. There is as yet no formal "military requirement" to produce this weapon design for the stockpile. While little is known of the characteristics of this new warhead, Department of Energy denials that this warhead constitutes an "advanced new type" of nuclear weapon are most probably correct.

  • Fourth, from a technical nonproliferation perspective, the SSMP's heavy emphasis on expanding the base of fundamental (and therefore largely unclassified) physics knowledge applicable to accurate predictions of nuclear weapons performance could severely undermine the treaty's objective "to contribute effectively to the prevention of the proliferation of nuclear weapons in all its aspects."

Preferring the path of least resistance in its dealings with the nuclear weapons establishment and its allies on Capitol Hill, the Clinton Administration has failed to exercise adequate policy and fiscal oversight over the development of DOE's Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program, which has climbed steadily to a level in excess of $4 billion annually. By comparison, the average level of expenditure for comparable warhead development and production activities during the years the Cold War was raging was $3.7 billion (constant FY 1997 dollars). Moreover, the SSMP budget continues to increase. The FY 1998 Energy and Water Appropriations bill, as passed by the Senate, contains an additional $283 million, boosting overall funding to $4.3 billion. [29]

If implemented over the next decade as presently planned, the SSM Program is poised to seriously erode important nonproliferation policy objectives as well as undermine political assurances the U.S. government provided other nations in connection with the indefinite extension of the NPT and the negotiation of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Indeed, over the long term the SSMP poses a threat to the strategic relevance of the CTBT itself.

While many of the SSMP's current and proposed activities may well be considered legitimate and necessary, pending a far-reaching and definitive revision of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy, this conclusion begs the question of why, after almost five years in office, the Clinton Administration has failed to produce such a major post Cold War revision in strategy. The SSMP is the bloated, but entirely predictable and largely self-defined response of a nuclear weapons establishment that has been told to adapt to the imposition of a "no nuclear explosions" constraint with virtually all the other basic underpinnings of U.S. nuclear weapons policy left unchanged.

Left to its own devices, this overblown program will certainly create political perceptions, and quite possibly real technical breakthroughs, that dampen the enthusiasm of formerly ardent test ban supporters at home and abroad, while simultaneously confirming doubts in some countries about the wisdom of forgoing "permanently" the "option" of nuclear weapon test explosions -- the "stewardship" option of last resort for the less technically and financially well-endowed.

Even as it disenchants test ban supporters, the SSMP is not nearly so attractive to potential opponents of test ban ratification as the Administration might think. The SSMP "story" is a complicated one, full of contingencies, caveats, and "technical risks." In place of a relatively straightforward strategy for maintaining stockpile confidence, such as periodic remanufacture of proven warheads to test-certified specifications, the Administration is offering a complex (and expensive) tale of elaborate new modeling capabilities to "predict" the degradation in nuclear performance of "aging" warheads -- warheads whose service lives have been deliberately "extended" until a new generation of weapon "designers" can develop and certify replacement warheads, using 3-D codes not yet written and massive new experimental facilities not yet built.

Rather than continuing to issue blank checks to be filled in by the national weapons laboratories and forwarded to Congress for approval, the Clinton Administration should take a second -- and much harder -- look at the entire SSM program strategy as well as at specific questionable projects. It should evaluate the cost to competing U.S. policy priorities -- including ultimate entry-into-force of the CTB itself -- if the SSMP is allowed to press ahead on its presently programmed course of "exercising" nuclear warhead design capabilities by designing, "prototyping," and flight testing new warhead designs.

The Administration would do well to begin with the ongoing DOE/Navy "SLBM Warhead Protection Program," and in particular its "New Pit Replacement Option" design project. And it should conduct a major review of how a more ambitious START III objective -- for example 1000 total warheads -- and long delayed changes in U.S. nuclear strategy could radically reduce the financial and political costs of the current SSM Program.


29. According to an undated July 1997 press release from Senator Domenici's office, he "has entered into discussions with the White House, DOE, and the Defense Department to establish a new baseline for U.S. nuclear weapons programs." Formerly $4 billion per year for ten years, "that new baseline, which would quantify needs for funding in future years, is to be formalized in coming months."

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