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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Energy Department Endorses Shorter Preparation for Nuclear Test
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Christine Kucia

The Department of Energy submitted a report to the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 20 calling for the United States to shorten the time it would take to conduct a nuclear test to 18 months in order to provide a “reasonable level of flexibility” for the Bush administration.

Congress requested the report in November 2002, instructing Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham to draw up plans that would enable the department to test within six, 12, 18, or 24 months. Currently, the United States can conduct a nuclear test within 24-36 months of a presidential directive to do so. Congress also asked Abraham to determine, in consultation with the secretary of defense, which readiness period would be optimal. (See ACT, December 2002.)

The 18-month recommendation “reflects what is achievable and cost effective,” according to the report, which was prepared by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous agency within the Energy Department. The report indicated that 18 months is the minimum amount of time needed to evaluate a problem identified in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, propose a solution, and “execute a test that would provide the information needed to certify the ‘fix.’” The recommendation is “consistent with realistic testing schedules” established during previous U.S. nuclear testing, which ceased in 1992.

By contrast, shortening test readiness to six or 12 months would require a “substantial diversion of personnel and facilities at the laboratories,” according to the report. That would “represent a major redirection of the stockpile stewardship program,” which is intended to maintain the nuclear arsenal in the absence of testing. Adopting a testing posture of a year or less would be “most relevant…[if] the President might direct that testing resume for political reasons.” The report also noted that the shorter readiness period would be considerably more expensive.

The transition to shorten the current 24-36 month readiness posture, expected to take three years, is already underway. NNSA conducted an Enhanced Test Readiness Cost Study in July 2002 to determine the steps and funding required to shorten the readiness posture, and the Nuclear Weapons Council, a consultative group of officials from the Energy Department and the Pentagon, approved the plan to transition to an 18-month readiness window in September 2002, according to the report. The Bush administration asked for funds to begin moving to a shorter test readiness posture in its fiscal year 2004 budget request. (See ACT, March 2003.)

Charles Anson Franklin, NNSA spokesman, said that the current readiness posture of 24-36-months was “a policy decision of the previous administration. This administration has made a policy decision of an 18-month readiness period.” He added, “It’s been out there—it’s not been a surprise…We’ve been talking about [moving to an 18-month readiness posture] since 2001.”

The changes will be fully implemented by the end of fiscal year 2005 and will cost $83 million, with an additional $25-30 million needed annually to sustain the heightened state of scientific, technological, and personnel preparedness, according to the report. The report examined a speedier transition but concluded that reaching the 18-month readiness posture sooner would cost more and disrupt other programs because of the limited number of nuclear weapons personnel.

Addressing Foster

The Energy Department’s test readiness assessment also responded to the latest findings by the Panel to Assess the Reliability, Safety, and Security of the United States Nuclear Stockpile, which was established by Congress in the fiscal year 1999 Defense Authorization Act. Senators on the Armed Services Committee received those findings April 11 from the panel’s chair, John Foster.

The Foster panel suggested that applicable defense agencies and nuclear laboratories identify possible tests that could be needed and set aside the test articles and instrumentation in advance. However, the Energy Department noted that, while various tests are routinely identified, “none of these tests have been deemed essential by any of the directors in the context of today’s stockpile stewardship program.” The Energy Department report also rebuffed the Foster panel’s recommendation that the nuclear laboratories should propose tests to enhance their knowledge of nuclear weapons science, stating that there are no gaps in scientific knowledge that would require full-scale testing.

In March 2002, the Foster panel recommended a readiness window of 3-12 months, and in its April report the panel characterized the Energy Department’s test readiness assumptions as “overly conservative.” (See ACT, April 2002.) In response, the Energy Department noted that the recommended 18-month period is based on U.S. experience with nuclear testing toward the end of the Cold War and that it “would be optimistic to assume that a well-diagnosed test could be conducted in a much shorter period of time after a decade hiatus.”