Letter to Senator Domenici


January 7, 1997

Senator Pete Domenici
328 Hart Senate Office Bldg.
Washington, D.C. 20510
Re: Proposed subcritical nuclear tests

Dear Senator Domenici:

We are very concerned about the Department of Energy's proposal to conduct subcritical nuclear tests.  Plans for these tests have been advanced without adequate independent, or indeed internal, review.  The proposed subcritical tests will have national security costs, impacting:
  • The process of ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) among the world's nations;

  • The perceived legitimacy of, the CTBT once it is ratified;

  • Attitudes among nations toward the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), affecting their willingness to a) sign the treaty if they have not done so; b) abide by the treaty if they have signed it; and c) negotiate further nonproliferation-oriented restrictions;

  • The debate in India on whether or not to conduct one or more nuclear tests and on nuclear proliferation in South Asia generally;

  • The evolution of comparable subcritical test programs in other nuclear states and associated verification issues;

  • The scale, capabilities, and direction of nuclear weapons research, development, and testing in the other nuclear states.

  • The potential national security costs of these tests do not all inhere in the fact that they would be conducted underground in Nevada.  Most of these possible impacts would occur no matter where the tests were done.

What purported benefits could possibly balance these costs?  So far, the Department has justified these tests primarily on the basis of maintaining skills at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) and the labs.  These arguments don't make sense:  if there were an actual need for a full-scale nuclear test, such a test could be conducted within a reasonable period of time, regardless of current staffing at NTS.  In fact, many workers at NTS with important skills have already left the site.  And subcritical tests are a relatively trivial contributor to skills at the design labs.  They do have a kind of ritual relevance at the labs, however, as many individuals there still look forward to an anticipated resumption of nuclear testing -- making these tests important, not for their data (see below) or the skills they use, but as place-holders for the "real thing."

The subcritical tests are secondarily justified on the basis of the data they will produce -- data which is said to improve the stockpile stewardship program generally without being necessary for any weapon in particular.  Despite the purported urgency of these tests, as of this date only two of the proposed tests have actually been designed.

Please consider the following:
  • Aging of pits and pit materials cannot be a reason to conduct these tests, at least for the next two decades or so, because Los Alamos has determined that there are no aging problems which could affect pit performance for the first several decades of pit life, provided the pits were manufactured correctly. (1)  Indeed, the purposes of the initial two tests (2) are to obtain equation of state data, not to ascertain aging effects.

  • If the purpose of these tests was, arguendo, to test the performance of remanufactured pits -- a purpose for which these tests are not necessary, nor probably very helpful (see next bullet) -- then it makes no sense to conduct these tests prior to actually having the remanufactured pits in hand, i.e. prior to circa 1998 at the earliest.  Experiments like Rebound and Holog (the first two proposed tests) are not relevant for this purpose.

  • The performance of a pit will be reliable if the physical characteristics (e.g. dimensions, surface finish) and metallurgical quality (e.g. composition, phase, grain size, weld qualities) are adequate.  All these properties can be measured in the laboratory; it is far from clear that subcritical tests would be useful for this purpose.  Pits produced at LANL, LLNL, and RFP all worked well in Nevada (even the first test of new-design pits(3)), despite inevitable minor variations in manufacture. 

  • Given the foregoing costs -- some predictable, some not -- and lack of benefits, we do not believe there is an intellectually-defensible justification for these tests.

  • The Department of Energy has received requests for independent reviews of the utility and nonproliferation impacts of these tests.  Much money and time could be saved if the Department were to simply cancel these tests without further studies, given the absence of even a prima facie case to conduct the tests.  Should the Department conduct these reviews, they should be as fully public as is possible, consistent with classification concerns, both in the sense of public disclosure and in the sense of public involvement.

  • The public review of the purported benefit of these tests should include a detailed justification of each proposed test, showing the necessity of that test to maintain the reliability of existing, unmodified, weapon types in the arsenal.

  • Any sound nonproliferation review should include two or possibly three elements.

    • The first is a review by independent experts not in any way beholden to the Department or its contractors, experts whose views are published in full by the Department without redaction or abridgement.

    • The second element is public disclosure and review.

    • The third element of is review by foreign experts (e.g. former diplomats), who may be much better placed than we to assess the impact of the proposed tests on their country's policies and cooperation with U.S. security goals. 
Thank you for your attention.

Greg Mello
Los Alamos Study Group

1.  Personal communication, which I subsequently checked twice with him for exactness, from Paul Cunningham, Director, Nuclear Materials Technology Program, LANL. 

2.  The first test, Rebound, would actually be three simultaneous explosions (and thus three separate, related tests); see LANL Weapons Insider, April 1996, p.4. 

3.  Ray Kidder, "Maintaining the U.S. Stockpile of Nuclear Weapons During a Low-Threshold or Comprehensive Test Ban," October 1987, UCRL-53820, LLNL.

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