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Foster Panel Calls for Reducing Nuclear Test Preparation Time

Philipp C. Bleek

A congressionally established panel presented its findings March 21, calling for the preparation time required before a U.S. nuclear test can be conducted to be substantially shortened.

Current test readiness time, defined as the period between a presidential order for a nuclear test and the time the Energy Department can actually carry out that test, is two to three years. But the Panel to Assess the Reliability, Safety, and Security of the United States Nuclear Stockpile—colloquially termed the “Foster panel” after its chairman, John Foster—says that test readiness should be reduced to between three months and one year.

The recommendation meshes with those contained in the Bush administration’s nuclear posture review, which said that the current test readiness time “may be too long.”

The Foster panel was established by the fiscal year 1999 Defense Authorization Act and tasked with preparing three annual reports assessing the state of the Energy Department’s stockpile stewardship program, which is intended to maintain the reliability and safety of U.S. nuclear weapons in the absence of nuclear testing. This is the panel’s final report.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Foster said the panel was unanimously recommending that the administration and Congress “support test readiness of three months to a year, depending on the type of test.” But Foster also noted that the recommendation was not driven by an “imminent” need to test, but rather “because prudence requires that every president have realistic options to test should technical or international events make it necessary.”

A congressional staff member close to the issue said the calls for shortening the test time were little more than “saber rattling,” saying that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to conduct a “meaningful test” within months. The staff member said that the administration should clarify its intentions and that recent “rhetoric” on the issue was “counterproductive.”

The Foster panel recommendation was foreshadowed in the panel’s previous report, which did not focus directly on test readiness but which suggested that a time “well below” one year was appropriate. (See ACT, April 2001.) The report also cited potentially serious shortcomings in the weapons complex and the stockpile stewardship program, issues that Foster indicated in his recent testimony had been at least partially addressed.

But Foster also warned that “major challenges remain,” citing an “atrophied” weapons complex and the “unprecedented technical challenge” of maintaining confidence in weapons as they are refurbished and modified.

The nuclear posture review says a revitalization of the nation’s nuclear weapons infrastructure is necessary “so that the United States will be able to adjust to rapidly changing situations,” including moves to “modify, upgrade, or replace” portions of the nuclear arsenal or to develop and deploy new weapons.

The posture review also hints at the need for a return to nuclear testing, stating, “Increasingly, objective judgments about [nuclear weapons] capability in a non-testing environment will become far more difficult.”

At the same time, administration officials have continued to emphasize that they do not foresee a return to testing in the near future and that the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile remains “safe, secure, and reliable,” as National Nuclear Security Administration head John Gordon told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee March 18.