Pentagon Memo Raises Possibility of Nuclear Testing

December 2002

By Christine Kucia

A memorandum from a high-level Pentagon official recommending that the United States consider a low-yield nuclear testing program to help maintain the nuclear weapons stockpile surfaced November 15, just two days after Congress delayed an attempt to reduce the time required to prepare a nuclear test.

Edward Aldridge, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, sent the memorandum October 21 to members of the Nuclear Weapons Council, a consultative body he chairs that is made up of officials from the Departments of Defense and Energy. In the letter, which was obtained by the Arms Control Association and made public in mid-November, he expressed concern about the ability of the Stockpile Stewardship Program to ensure a high level of safety and performance of the current nuclear arsenal. “New findings suggest that we may previously have been overconfident,” Aldridge wrote. The Stockpile Stewardship Program combines subcritical testing with computer modeling based on data from previous nuclear weapons tests to verify the safety and reliability of the nuclear arsenal.

Among the suggestions offered by Aldridge for assessing the arsenal’s safety and reliability is “for the laboratories to readdress the value of a low yield testing program.” Aldridge pointed out the difficulty of fully understanding the stockpile’s safety without testing and asked, “How might such a program [of low-yield nuclear testing] increase confidence now?”

Deliberations over the resumption of nuclear testing to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile have bubbled beneath the surface of Bush administration policy since January 2001, when the White House indicated that it would not ask the Senate to reconsider ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The administration also hinted at nuclear testing resumption in its January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, a leaked version of which stated, “While the United States is making every effort to maintain the stockpile without additional testing, this may not be possible for the indefinite future.” Among other things, the review, as well as a later study by the National Nuclear Security Administration, expressed concern that the United States is losing important expertise as the number of laboratory personnel with nuclear testing experience dwindles.

Other experts within the U.S. government deny the need for resumed testing. Bruce Goodwin, associate director for defense and nuclear technologies at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said, “I don’t know of any reason why we can’t” maintain the stockpile without testing, according to a November 15 San Jose Mercury News article. Energy Department spokesman Bryan Wilkes said November 22 that there are “no new movements or talk” in the agency about resuming testing, adding, “We see no need to deviate from the Stockpile Stewardship Program right now.” In addition, a July 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences noted, “Even in the absence of constraints on nuclear testing, no need was ever identified for a program that would periodically subject the stockpile weapons to nuclear tests.”

Aldridge’s memorandum was made public just two days after Congress finished the fiscal year 2003 Defense Authorization Act, passed by the House of Representatives November 12 and the Senate a day later. In the bill, Congress requests a report that will outline plans and costs calculations for nuclear testing readiness periods of 6, 12, 18, and 24 months. The bill also calls for a recommendation from the secretaries of energy and defense on the “optimal readiness posture.”

The United States conducted its last nuclear test in 1992, and since 1993 the Energy Department has been required to be able to resume testing within 24-36 months. Whereas in previous years Congress simply authorized funds to maintain readiness without discussion, this year House Republicans unsuccessfully pushed for the adoption of a one-year readiness requirement. The Senate refused to reopen the issue of test readiness to deliberation. Conference committee members compromised by requesting the study, which will postpone congressional debate on whether to shorten the test readiness period.

Calling the House proposal for a one-year readiness posture “unnecessarily aggressive,” Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) described the result as an important compromise November 18. Asking the Energy Department to evaluate all of the possible options and propose a posture recommendation was an important achievement, according to Tauscher, who said, “I don’t believe Congress should arbitrarily mandate a testing posture that would have significant national security consequences.”