For over 50 years, peace activists have campaigned for a treaty banning all nuclear weapons testing, effectively applying the brakes to an insane nuclear arms race that has imperiled and polluted our planet since World War II. 1996 could be the year we see our labors come to fruition, if the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is signed by countries possessing nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons technology.
President Clinton has pledged his commitment to signing a nuclear test ban in 1996 with a "zero yield" threshold, i.e. one prohibiting nuclear explosions that reach critical mass and release fission energy. Russia, the U.K., and France have endorsed a zero yield testing ban, leaving only China of the five official nuclear weapons states yet to renounce testing. Achieving a truly comprehensive test ban this year is by no means a certainty, but Clinton insists he will negotiate hard to make it happen and the opportunity has certainly never been this good.
You might reasonably think this indicates a readiness on the part of the US and the other nuclear weapons states to renounce the Cold War mentality and seek ways to dismantle their nuclear arsenals—now that their warheads are not aimed at anything in particular.
You might reasonably think that as a sign of faith in the pursuit of disarmament the US will now close down its nuclear research and development laboratories and nuclear test sites.
Reasonable, but wrong. President Clinton's admirable commitment to the CTBT was strongly opposed by the Pentagon and the nuclear weapons laboratories, who had lobbied for resumption of underground "hydronuclear" tests, prohibited by the treaty. In return for the labs' compliance with the terms of the test ban, billions of dollars have been earmarked for DOE non-detonation weapons programs, known as "Science Based Stockpile Stewardship" and "Stockpile Management." The US is indeed committed to ending nuclear testing—as we now know it.
In the future, nuclear tests will be computer simulated in laboratories. By the century's end the DOE intends to realize a multi-billion dollar plan to construct and operate a system of new high-tech laboratory facilities to preserve its capacity to maintain, test, modify, design, and produce nuclear weapons far into the future, without the need for underground tests. New stadium-sized above and underground facilities at the national nuclear labs will be filled with state-of-the-art, industrial scale, scientific equipment. While these tests are not designed to produce a nuclear yield or detonation, they would involve explosions of radioactive and other hazardous materials. The data generated by these nuclear experiments will be run through the world's fastest supercomputers. DOE scientists will use the supercomputers to simulate nuclear weapons tests and create a virtual testing and prototyping capability for nuclear weapons.
As part of the "Stockpile Stewardship" program, the DOE is planning to conduct two "subcritical high-explosive experiments with nuclear materials" underground at the Nevada Test Site in 1996 and four subcritical experiments in 1997. The first of these tests is scheduled to take place on June 18. The experiments will use 50-500 pounds of high explosive charge and will involve special nuclear materials, including plutonium-239. They are termed "subcritical" because no self-sustaining nuclear reaction is intended to take place. The DOE says they need to conduct these experiments to (1) improve the knowledge of the dynamic properties of aged nuclear materials [i.e. plutonium] in order to assess the effects of new manufacturing techniques on weapons performance; and (2) help maintain the capabilities of the Nevada Test Site and support nuclear test "readiness."
Technically speaking, as these tests will not produce a nuclear yield, they do not contravene a "zero yield" test ban. But the primary historical purpose of the CTBT—to cut off nuclear weapons development-is subverted by reviving the nuclear complex and allowing nuclear experiments of any sort. Nuclear testing provides the scientific data essential to maintaining a working nuclear arsenal and creating more sophisticated nuclear weapons, thus perpetuating the nuclear arms race. The majority of the 38 countries now involved in negotiations for the CTBT believes that its purpose is to halt nuclear weapons research and development which will lead to the eventual elimination of nuclear arsenals as weapons decay and are not replaced.
In contrast, the Department of Defense's Nuclear Posture Review, approved by the President in 1994, directs the DOE to "maintain the capability to design, fabricate, and certify new warheads."
The CTBT is an important environmental and anti-proliferationary measure that brings the world one step closer to nuclear disarmament. But while the treaty significantly reduces the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries ("horizontal" proliferation), it does little to undermine "vertical" proliferation—the qualitative improvement of already existing nuclear weapons capabilities. Scientific advancements in nuclear weapon design technology will increasingly put the work of nuclear labs at odds with treaties seeking to stem nuclear proliferation. Disarmament advocates, while supporting the CTBT, must be vigilant in opposing all efforts to expand laboratory-based nuclear weapons programs. A US nuclear double standard which instructs the world to "do as we say, not as we do" will only serve to enrage non-nuclear states and make them rethink signing a test ban that leaves the nuclear playing field far from even. Already, India—not an official nuclear weapons owning state, but one with some degree of nuclear weapon-making technology—says it will not sign a test ban treaty that isn't tied to a declaration of commitment to nuclear disarmament.
By scheduling tests now, even ones "allowed" by treaty criteria, the US is philosophically undermining the treaty's very premise, and potentially jeopardizing a process that has been continually thwarted for a half century.
At a time when the Soviet threat, indeed the Soviet Union itself, has dissolved, when the US has no nuclear warheads targeting its cities, and non-nuclear countries and citizen organizations the world over are crying out for disarmament, our country is presented with the perfect opportunity to begin dismantling its nuclear arsenals and its anachronistic Cold War nuclear laboratories and create a peace time economy. But the Cold War warriors firmly entrenched in the government, the military, the labs and big business will make no profits from peace. Nuclear scientists would be out of cushy jobs, defense firms would lose lucrative government contracts, politicians would lose millions in defense industry campaign contributions. The Congress agrees: nuclear war readiness makes economic sense for their interests.
The US has a military budget for fiscal '96 twice the size of all its potential adversaries combined, at a time when deficit hawks are slashing funds for Medicare, Medicaid, the Department of Education and a host of programs for the poorest and neediest in our society. The amount of pork and corporate welfare stuffed into the Defense Appropriations Bill is staggering. The Pentagon receives $243 billion for fiscal '96, $6.9 billion more than the President requested. Combined with separate bills that provide funding for military construction and for the Energy Department's defense-related nuclear programs, Congress has provided nearly $265 billion in defense-related funding for fiscal '96. GOP defense mavens intent on reviving "Star Wars"-like anti-missile defenses, added more than $700 million to Clinton's $3 billion request to develop and purchase such Cold War relics. $493 million was earmarked for B-2 bombers (though thankfully this money will be spent on maintenance, and not purchase of more planes), and $700 million will pay for production to begin on a third Seawolf submarine with a $1.5 billion price tag.
The Department of Energy is now spending more, not less on nuclear weapons research. More than half the department's fiscal '96 money is devoted to military activities involving nuclear weapons. The pollution caused by years of nuclear experiments, toxic emissions from nuclear powered energy plants and leaking radiation from nuclear waste sites is costing US taxpayers $5.6 billion this year in clean-up costs that will barely scratch the surface of the mess we have made of this beautiful land.
While we continue to invest in nuclear energy, every day, six more tons of high-level radioactive waste pile up at the nation's 109 nuclear power plants—some 30,000 tons of spent fuel rods so far. There is no permanent storage site for this dangerous material which will be hazardous to human health for centuries. Meanwhile, the DOE '96 budget for research into solar and other renewable energy technologies has taken a cut of 34 percent. A nuclear economy is simply more profitable for the people who run the country.
The American people are faced with a choice: the theory of nuclear deterrence, which risks escalating a fifty year-long nuclear arms race and intimidating non-nuclear weapons states into employing their own nuclear deterrent—or defining a new vision of global security based on demilitarization. Last year the US signed a legally-binding treaty committing it to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament" (Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). Continued reliance on a theory of nuclear deterrence will not fulfill the United States' declared obligation to nuclear weapons abolition.
So what can you do? The President needs to know you support his efforts to achieve a test ban this year that will prevent the type of devastating underground tests the French recently imposed upon the South Pacific. Write letters to the White House, to Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary and your local newspapers demanding an end to all nuclear testing, including the DOE's "subcritical" experiments which put the CTBT at risk and further an insane and wholly unjustified nuclear arms race. Come to Peace Action's National Congress May 17-19, at American University in Washington, D.C. and join us in our planned protest against DOE nuclear testing, and in our work on nuclear weapons abolition. Call Peace Action at 202-862-9740 for details.
Publications used for the production of this article:
Positive Alternatives. A Publication of the Center for Economic Conversion. Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall, 1995.
Jacqueline Cabasso & Patrice Sutton, Nuclear Weapons: Now and Forever? The Role of Laboratory-Based Testing in Maintaining Nuclear Weapons. Western States Legal Foundation.
Daryl Kimball, Issue Brief: Subcritical Experiments; The Comprehensive Test Ban. Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Congressional Quarterly, January 6, 1996, Vol. 54, No. 1, pp. 12-13; 46-48 .