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Why Are We Still Researching Nuclear Weapons?
There are 8,400 operational warheads in the U.S. arsenal
In all the furor over insufficient security at our nuclear weapons labs and the claim that China has stolen our secrets, neither the media nor Congress has questioned why the U.S. is continuing to research nuclear weapons. There are 8,400 operational warheads, of 12 types, in the U.S. arsenal. The first nuclear weapon with a new military capability since the end of the Cold Warthe B61-11 earth penetratorwas flight tested (dropped by a B-2 bomber) in Alaska last year. Our submarines armed with powerful Trident nuclear warheads sail the oceans of the world.
Current U.S. nuclear weapons policy was established in the Presidential Decision Directive secretly drafted in 1996 and quietly signed by President Clinton in November 1977. Although the contents are highly classified, portions were leaked to the Washington Post and then reprinted in other newspapers. The guide lines in the Directive were reported to be as follows:
- 1. The U.S. will continue to maintain nuclear weapons as the cornerstone of U.S. defense.
- 2. The U.S. reserves the right to be the first to use nuclear weapons during a conflict.
- 3. Nuclear weapons may be used against "rogue" nations.
- 4. The U.S. will maintain the capacity to design, develop, and produce nuclear weapons.
Management of our nuclear weapons facilities has been assigned to the Department of Energy (DOE)an indication of the obfuscation which characterizes U.S. nuclear weapons terminology since probably most Americans assume that the DOE is diligently researching clean, renewable sources of energy.
A second, even more blatant ploy, is the title assigned to the weapons programScience Based Stockpile Stewardship and Management. The DOE studiously avoids the word, "nuclear," in all its titles. From the beginning, spokespersons for the Department of Energy always insisted that the purpose of Stockpile Stewardship and Management was to "insure the safety and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile." Of course, with the Chinese spying contretemps, it is clear that Stockpile Stewardship is really about research and developmentresearch into new weapons and development of modifications to existing nuclear weapons. In actuality, Stockpile Stewardship and Management is an enormous program that exceeds in cost and scope the Manhattan Project of the 1940s, which brought us the atomic bomb. It is expected to cost $60 billion by the year 2010. It includes plans for continued capability for underground testing. It has begun a program to provide each of the three DOE labs with new supercomputers with thousands of times the performance of current supercomputers. They will be used to combine data from past nuclear explosions so that the performance of new weapons car be predicted without testing.
A frightening aspect of Stockpile Stewardship and Management is the Academic Strategic Alliances Program, which uses the unlimited funds of the DOE to enlist universities in related research. So far at least $20 million has been awarded to each of the following universities: California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, University of Illinois, University of Chicago, and University of Utah.
The University of California at Berkeley, in collaboration with the DOE weapons lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico, is working on the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility (DAHRT). The DAHRT is basically an X-Ray machine with two arms at right angles that will take very fast-moving pictures of the explosion of plutonium pits. Plutonium pits are the core of nuclear weapons, and plutonium is the most deadly and longest lived (over 200,000 years) material in the world. The DOE plans to spend more than $1 billion on expanded facilities for producing plutonium pits.
At the center of the Stockpile Stewardship and Management program is the National Ignition Facility (NIF). Peace activists say that NIF stands for Nuclear Insanity Forever. It is being installed ad Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is about 40 miles east of San Francisco.
The National Ignition Facility includes a huge, 130 ton spherical target chamber designed to contain thermonuclear or fusion explosions. The sphere spans 30 feet across. Its aluminum alloy walls are 4 inches thick, constructed of 18 welded plates. It is pockmarked by 118 holes of various sizes intended to accommodate 192 focused laser beams and a plethora of sophisticated diagnostic instruments. It has been lowered into a hole three stories deep. Pellets stuffed with radioactive tritiumand deuterium will be placed in the sphere, one at a time, to be detonated by an intense x-radiation field generated by NlFs multiple lasers. The cost of the National Ignition Facility will be at least $5 billion. According to Livermore Lab and DOE documents, the National Ignition Facility will be used to advance nuclear weapons design knowledge and to train a "new generation" of nuclear weaponeers.
Hisham Zerriffi of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research states that if the research at the NIF is successful, it could become a key part of developing pure fusion weapons. They would not require plutonium or highly enriched uranium and thus make nuclear weapons widely achievable.
In 1996 the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed by the U.S. and over 100 other countries. Its purpose is to halt development of nuclear weapons by prohibiting tests of new weapons. To date only 41 nations have ratified the treaty, and the U.S. Senate has not yet ratified it.
The U.S. official position is that "in-laboratory" testing and "sub-critical" underground testing do not conflict with the terms of the treaty. Other countries, however, are aware of our elaborate and costly Stockpile Stewardship program, much of which is clearly designed to test new weapons without the necessity of underground, chain-reaction explosions.
On June 16, 1999, the International Herald Tribune carried a statement by Jiang Zemin, President of China. It was reprinted in the Los Angeles Times but probably not in any other U.S. newspaper. Following are two paragraphs from this important and remarkable statement: "For 50 years, hanging over our heads like a sword of Damocles, nuclear weapons have never ceased threatening humanitys survival. The end of the Cold War has not brought about their disappearance.
"To reduce the armaments of others while keeping ones own intact, to reduce the obsolete while developing the state-of-the-art, to require other countries to scrupulously abide by treaties while giving oneself freedom of action, all these acts make a mockery of international efforts and run counter to the fundamental objective of disarmament."
At present the following nations, in addition to the U.S., have nuclear weapons: Great Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel. Actually any country with nuclear power plants or a research reactor has a headstart on producing nuclear weapons, and nuclear weapon theory and technology are available to the scientific community of the world.
As Dr. Ronald McCoy of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War stated so succinctly after the Indian and Pakistani tests: "We have only two choicesnuclear proliferation or nuclear disarmament."
The Tokyo Forum for Nuclear Non-proliferation, an international group of experts convened by Japan last year, delivered its report to the United Nations on August 4. It warns that the most immediate threat is to Asia but that deteriorating relations between the U.S. and China as well as Russia are making nuclear disarmament harder to achieve.
The unilateral NATO bombing of Yugoslavia has made Russia feel isolated and threatened. Consequently, it is becoming more reliant on its nuclear weapons. An international agreement for abolition of nuclear weapons is imperative. The nuclear weapons states should begin negotiations now without being sidetracked by issues such as ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, START II, or even de-alerting.
Two excellent resolutions have been presented to Congress. The first, HR 82, calls on the president to initiate negotiations on an international treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons. The second, HR 74, calls for scaling back the provocative and wasteful Stockpile Stewardship and Management program. We should urge our representatives to support these resolutions. Finally, we must insist that the U.S. obey the unanimous World Court (International Court of Justice) decision of 1996 that all states are obligated to "pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament." Z
Lillian Nurmela is an anti-nuclear activist and is editor of the joint newsletter of Womens International League for Peace and Freedom, East Bay, and Women for Peace.