Bill Evensonv / Salte Lake Tribune – 2004-04-30 12:22:20
When the first President Bush halted nuclear weapons testing in 1992, he surely didn’t anticipate that the moratorium would later be shrouded in a veil of secrecy. Fortunately, US Sen. Bob Bennett is in position to lift the veil.
The simple scientific fact is that there is no need for the United States to test a nuclear weapon now or in the foreseeable future. Here’s why:
The directors of the nation’s three nuclear weapons laboratories give the arsenal an annual checkup. Every year since the moratorium has been in place, they have delivered the same diagnosis: no problems. They haven’t asked for a nuclear test; they haven’t even hinted that tests are needed.
It’s not surprising. When the elder Bush halted testing, a multibillion-dollar Stockpile Stewardship Program was developed to maintain the reliability of the 8,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenal. Part of that program focuses on alerting scientists to any problem that might develop in one of the nuclear weapons — an early warning system. Indeed, scientists now know more about the arsenal than they ever would have under the old testing program.
The Truth Remains Classified
All of this would be part of the public discussion about testing if it weren’t for one thing. The annual report from the lab directors is classified.
It’s only through leaked information that the public can learn that the arsenal doesn’t need testing. We don’t need tests to develop new nuclear weapons. There are more than 1,000 good reasons that back up this point. The United States generated a warehouse of information when it carried out 1,030 nuclear tests over nearly 50 years.
Literally many dozens of different nuclear weapons designs have been tested and are capable of being built. In fact, there is already a tested design for every currently proposed “new” weapons concept.
This is not a controversial point. An advisory panel for the federal agency that oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons concluded that new nuclear weapons do not need to “involve any radical departures from previously considered or even implemented systems.”
Getting that advisory panel information was like pulling teeth. It took a reporter two years and a Freedom of Information Act request to do it.
Why Renewed Nuke Tests would Benefit our Enemies
Testing benefits our nuclear adversaries more than it benefits us. It’s a good bet that if the United States broke the moratorium, others would follow. And while at best we would get marginal gains in our weapons program, China could make major threatening upgrades.
In particular, China would probably integrate multiple warheads on each missile and develop new warheads for advanced solid-fuel rockets.
Chinese officials have said that they will consider a resumption of testing in response to the US nuclear policies outlined in the Nuclear Posture Review that the Defense Department submitted to Congress in December 2001. We might draw our own conclusions on the matter. Unfortunately, the review is classified.
Clearly, something has to be done to open up the process. We shouldn’t have to rely on leaks and Freedom of Information requests.
Laws Needed to Open the Process
Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, recently introduced a bill addressing the issue of radiation containment and nuclear testing. It is a nice step on behalf of concerned downwinders, but more has to be done.
Significant decisions should not be made behind closed doors and imposed on us with little warning. Such decisions require public understanding and deliberation. In the case of the Iraq war, the Bush administration engaged the public months ahead of time in an effort to build support. We should expect no less in the case of a nuclear weapons test.
Yet, there is no federal requirement to provide ample public notification of a proposed nuclear test. Worse yet, the entire testing program is veiled in secrecy. This is no way to alleviate public apprehension. In fact, it encourages suspicion.
In a recent hearing in Washington, Bennett pressed a Department of Energy (DOE) official with questions to determine whether a nuclear test is currently in the works. It is not at all reassuring that it took a U.S. senator to get answers that should be publicly available.
Bennett should encourage the Department of Energy to open up the process. At the very least, he should call for public notification of any proposed test with ample time for deliberation.
What’s ample? Eighteen months is reasonable — it takes that long to plan and carry out a nuclear test anyway. If DOE has a strong enough case for testing, then surely they wouldn’t worry about a little public discussion.
Bill Evenson is a professor of physics and associate dean of the School of Science and Health at Utah Valley State College.
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