On April 4, 1997 Secretary of Energy Federico Pea announced U.S. plans to conduct a series of "subcritical" underground nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site as part of a larger program to maintain and expand United States nuclear weapons capabilities under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The first of these tests is now scheduled for June 1997, with a second similar test to follow this summer or fall.


On September 24, 1996 President Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Two days later, John Holum, Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, declared: "[U]nder customary international law as codified in Article 18 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, a signatory is obliged, pending ratification, to refrain from any action that would defeat its purpose... any further testing would defeat the CTBT's object and purpose... if a country signs the CTBT, it is legally bound not to test, whether or not it has ratified, and whether or not the Treaty is in force." The CTBT does not define a nuclear test, but it is understood to ban nuclear explosions with measurable nuclear yields.

On October 8, less than two weeks after the U.S. signed the CTBT, theDepartment of Energy (DOE) announced its desire to conduct so-called "subcritical" tests, underground at the Nevada Test Site. The proposal was finalized on December 9, 1996. While subcritical tests may not violate the "letter" of the CTBT, they are antithetical to its spirit and undermine prospects for its global entry-into-force.


Instead of preparing to close the Nevada Test Site, the DOE has awarded a 5-year $1.5 billion contract to the Bechtel Corporation to manage the test site; to maintain the capability to perform full scale underground tests there; and to conduct subcritical underground tests to assess the effects of new manufacturing techniques on weapon performance. According to the DOE, subcritical tests will involve 50 to 500 pounds of high explosive charge and special nuclear material such as weapon-grade plutonium. But they will be designed to occur without self-sustaining nuclear reactions or nuclear explosions, thus the term, "subcritical." The subcritical tests will take place 980 feet underground at the Nevada Test Site. The first two planned subcritical experiments would not involve nuclear warheads or "weapons configurations." These tests have nothing to do with weapons safety. According to DOE, they would provide scientists with data on the behavior of plutonium in a "strongly-shocked" state -- data that would be used to improve supercomputer modeling of nuclear weapon performance and assess changes in weapon remanufacture techniques and materials.

However, DOE has not ruled out the possibility of conducting subcritical tests involving "weapons configurations" in the future.

Thanks largely to protests from NGOs and foreign governments, these tests, originally scheduled to begin in June and September 1996, were quietly postponed in order to minimize controversy about their purpose during the CTBT negotiations.

Subcritical tests are only a small part of the huge, deceptively named, "Stockpile Stewardship and Management" (SS&M) Program. Under the pretext of censuring the "safety" and "reliability" of the "enduring" U.S. nuclear arsenal, the SS&M Program is intended to maintain and expand U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities well into the 21st century. In order to preserve the capacity to maintain, test, modify, design and produce nuclear weapons, with or without underground explosions, the U.S. is building up its already vast laboratory-based infrastructure. Nuclear weapons design will be advanced through computer simulations coupled with archived data from more than 1000 past tests and new diagnostic information obtained from inertial confinement fusion (including the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Livermore Lab, pulsed power and chemical explosive driven pulsed power fusion experiments, above-ground hydrodynamic explosions (including at the Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrotest (DARHT) Facility at Los Alamos Lab), and subcritical "zero yield" underground tests at the Nevada Test Site. A rebuilt U.S. nuclear weapons design and manufacturing complex will be capable of turning out 150 weapons or more a year. Over the next decade, the U.S. plans to invest $40 billion in the SS&M Program -- more than the DOE's Cold War annual spending average for nuclear weapons research, development, testing, production and disassembly.


The subcritical tests and the SS&M Program of which they are an integral part demonstrate a continuing commitment to nuclear weapons as core instruments of U.S. national policy. That commitment influences other countries' assessment of the desirability of nuclear weapons, and more generally endangers the long-term viability of the nonproliferation regime by maintaining an international double standard. Despite U.S. claims that the subcritical tests will not violate the terms of the recently-signed CTBT, they will create verification problems and threaten the treaty's global entry-into-force. (The CTBT agreed to by the U.S. and now signed by over 150 countries requires India's participation in the treaty. India has made it clear that it will not sign the CTBT without a demonstrable commitment to disarmament by the nuclear weapon states.) Even without entry-into-force, the subcritical tests will weaken the integrity of the CTBT, which was historically intended to prevent further modernization and development of nuclear weapons.


On May 1, 1997, 39 U.S. peace and environmental NGOs filed a lawsuit challenging the adequacy of the DOE's Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for Stockpile Stewardship and Management. The lawsuit seeks to halt the subcritical tests and other components of the SS&M Program until an adequate, comprehensive PEIS, with full public participation, is produced. The judge is expected to issue a ruling on the subcriticals in mid-June. (Rev. 5/24/97)

Jackie Cabasso * Western States Legal Foundation
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