No Going Back: 20 Years Since the Last U.S. Nuclear Test
Volume 3, Issue 14, September 20, 2012
On September 23, 1992, under the surface of the Nevada Test Site, the United States conducted its 1,030th--and last--nuclear weapon test explosion. At the time, there were serious questions about whether the United States could indefinitely extend the service lives of its nuclear warheads without regular nuclear testing.
But today, with the help of two decades of hard data and problem-solving through the nuclear weapons Stockpile Stewardship Program, those questions have been answered. As Bruce T. Goodwin, principal associate director for weapons at Livermore National Laboratory told The Washington Post in November 2011: "We have a more fundamental understanding of how these weapons work today than we ever imagined when we were blowing them up."
It is now widely recognized that the United States no longer has any need for, nor any interest in, conducting nuclear explosive tests.
Four presidential administrations have determined that it remains in the U.S. national security interests to refrain from resuming nuclear explosive testing: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The more time passes the more it becomes clear: the days of U.S. nuclear testing are over.
The Test Ban and Stockpile Stewardship
The 1992 U.S. testing halt was triggered by Congressional approval of the Exon-Hatfield-Mitchell 9-month test moratorium legislation--a bipartisan initiative that was prompted by the end of the Cold War, the closure of the Soviet test site in Kazakhstan in 1989, and Russia's unilateral test moratorium announced on October 5, 1991.
The Senate approved the measure on August 3, 1992 by a 68-32 vote. The House adopted it on September 24 by a 224-151 margin. The legislation limited the number and purpose of any additional testing and set a September 30, 1996 end date for U.S. testing.
On July 3, 1993, after an extensive interagency review, President Bill Clinton nnounced he would extend the U.S. moratorium and pursue multilateral negotiations for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Negotiations began in 1994 and concluded in mid-1996. The treaty, which was opened for signature in September 1996, prohibits "any nuclear weapon test explosion," provides for an extensive global monitoring system and the option for short-notice, on-site inspections to detect and deter surreptitious nuclear weapons testing.
Before signing the CTBT on September 24, 1996, President Clinton created the Stockpile Stewardship Program to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the absence of nuclear test explosions. Before the program would be able to show concrete results, the Senate rejected the CTBT in 1999 after a hasty and abbreviated debate, in part because some senators were concerned that the new approach might not work.
Now, the stewardship program has proven so successful over the years that many informed observers who were initially skeptical believe that the United States does not need nuclear tests.
As Linton Brooks, former director of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) under President George W. Bush, said in November 2011, "as a practical matter, it is almost certain that the United States will not test again... I have been in and out of government for a long time. And in recent years I never met anybody who advocated that we seek authorization to return to testing."
And George Shultz, President Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State, said in April 2009, "[Republicans] might have been right voting against [the CTBT] some years ago, but they would be right voting for it now, based on these new facts.... [There are] new pieces of information that are very important and that should be made available to the Senate."
That Was Then, This Is Now
During the Congressional debate on the proposed nuclear test moratorium legislation in June 1992, then-Rep. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) argued: "... as long as we have a nuclear deterrent, we have got to test it in order to ensure that it is safe and it is reliable."
Times have changed since 1992 and many of the old assumptions and beliefs about nuclear weapons and nuclear testing no longer apply. We now have almost two decades of experience with the Stockpile Stewardship Program, which has exceeded all expectations.
The recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, "The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty--Technical Issues for the United States," lays out a compelling technical case, based on the latest information, that the United States does not need nuclear tests to maintain its arsenal.
The NAS report finds that "The technical capabilities for maintaining the U.S. stockpile absent nuclear-explosion testing are better now than anticipated" when the NAS issued its previous report in 2002, and that "the United States has the technical capabilities to maintain a safe, secure, and reliable stockpile of nuclear weapons into the foreseeable future without nuclear-explosion testing."
The technical strategy for maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile without explosive testing has been in place for almost two decades. Since 1994, each warhead type in the U.S. nuclear arsenal has been determined to be safe and reliable through a rigorous annual certification process. The Stockpile Stewardship Program includes nuclear weapons surveillance and maintenance, non-nuclear and subcritical nuclear experiments, and increasingly sophisticated supercomputer modeling. Life extension programs have successfully refurbished existing types of nuclear warheads and can continue to do so indefinitely.
A 2009 study by JASON, the independent technical review panel, concluded that the "lifetimes of today's nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence."
Arguments for resuming U.S. nuclear testing have become weaker and weaker with time, as the stockpile is certified year-after-year and more warhead types have their service lives extended.
Moreover, NNSA has more resources than ever before to perform core stockpile stewardship work. Since 2009, funding for the nuclear weapons complex has increased by 13%. The Obama administration's $7.6 billion budget request for fiscal year 2013 would boost NNSA weapons programs funding even more, by 5% over last year's appropriation of $7.2 billion.
As Sen. Dianne Feinstein noted at a March 21, 2012 appropriations committee hearing, "Regarding nuclear weapons activities, I believe the fiscal year 2013 budget request provides more than sufficient funding to modernize the nuclear weapons stockpile."
Nevertheless, some die-hard CTBT critics say that the United States might someday need to test to develop a new type of nuclear weapon. First, there is no military requirement for new types of nuclear weapons.
Second, in the exceedingly unlikely event that nuclear testing is needed in the distant future, the United States has the option to exercise the CTBT's "supreme national interest clause" and withdraw from the treaty.
Given that the United States already has the most advanced nuclear arsenal in the world, setting off another round of global nuclear tests would only serve to undermine U.S. security by helping other nuclear-armed states improve their nuclear capabilities.
Time To Finish The Job
The CTBT has now been signed by 183 nations and ratified by 157. The treaty has already improved U.S. and global security. Both Russia and China halted nuclear testing as a result of the CTBT and only one nation (North Korea) has conducted nuclear tests since 1998.
In order for the CTBT to formally enter into force, however, it must still be ratified by the remaining eight "holdout" states listed in Annex 2 of the Treaty.
Ratification by the United States and China is crucial. By signing the treaty and ending nuclear testing, Washington and Beijing have already taken on most CTBT-related responsibilities, yet their failure to ratify has denied them-and others-the full security benefits of the Treaty.
U.S. ratification would reinforce the taboo against testing and prompt other key states--such as China, India, and Pakistan--to ratify the treaty. Without positive action on the CTBT, however, the risk that one or more states could resume nuclear testing will only grow.
Nuclear testing is a dangerous and unnecessary vestige of the Cold War that the United States rightly abandoned in 1992. After 1,030 tests, the United States does not need further nuclear explosive testing, but those who would seek to improve their arsenals do.
It is past time to take another look at the CTBT. The Senate has a responsibility to reconsider the treaty and to do so on the basis of an honest and up-to-date analysis of the facts and the issues at stake. --TOM Z. COLLINA and DARYL G. KIMBALL
For more information, see:
- Summary of the CTBT
- Brief History of the CTBT
- Now More Than Ever: The Case for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, ACA Briefing Book, February 2010
The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today.
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