By: Hisham Zerriffi and Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D.
Full report [PDF 1.2MB]As the United States participates in negotiations for a Comprehensive Test Ban treaty in Geneva, it is simultaneously putting into place a program to enhance the capabilities of its nuclear weapons design laboratories. The U.S. Department of Energy's Science Based Stockpile Stewardship (SBSS) program would build new experimental facilities to study the nuclear components of the United States nuclear arsenal, as well as a large scale computing initiative in order to more accurately model nuclear weapons. The implementation of the SBSS program is currently a part of the U.S. position to support a Comprehensive Test Ban treaty under which no nuclear explosions would be permitted (the "zero yield" CTB). Officially, the purpose of the SBSS program is to maintain the safety and reliability of the nuclear arsenal in the absence of nuclear testing. The Department of Energy (DOE) has argued that, as the nuclear arsenal ages, it will be an increasingly complex task to maintain the level of safety and reliability necessary without nuclear testing. The SBSS program is supposed to aid in this endeavor by providing information on the basic physical processes of nuclear weapons in order to create more accurate computer models, in essence to be able to conduct "virtual tests."
Summary of Findings and Recommendations
The purpose of this report is to examine DOE's statements regarding the safety and reliability of the nuclear arsenal and to assess the usefulness of the SBSS program in addressing the relevant issues. Our analysis of historical data regarding problems with nuclear warheads leads us to conclude that the SBSS program would provide little aid in maintaining the safety of the existing arsenal. Indeed, DOE's own data show that there have been no aging-related nuclear safety problems in warheads.
While the SBSS program's claims in regard to improving safety of the arsenal appear dubious at best, it has a clear relationship to increasing U.S. capability to design new warheads and to design major modifications to existing ones. The new SBSS facilities are of the types used previously as part of the weapons design program. One of the main goals of the program is to retain and attract new weapons designers. Furthermore, various official documents indicate that the ability to maintain weapons design capabilities is a priority of the DOE. Another purpose appears to be to maintain the reliability of the nuclear arsenal at extremely high levels. Such high levels of reliability may be necessary only if the United States pursues a strategy of first strike against opponents with large nuclear arsenals rather than retaliatory nuclear deterrence. However, the data that we have are too limited to enable us to arrive at a definitive conclusion in this regard.
The SBSS program is coupled with other problematic provisions in the U.S. position on the CTB. (1) Specifically, the U.S. government wants to:
The design capabilities inherent in existing and new SBSS facilities will provide the opportunity for the DOE to bring new weapons or modifications to existing weapons to a stage of near completion, in the same manner that a complex machine such as the Boeing 777 was largely designed using computers and wind tunnels. The SBSS program is likely to create pork-barrel driven pressures to withdraw from the CTB in times of crisis. The enormous financial advantages that the U.S. enjoys over Russia and China in the matter of military expenditures, despite recent reductions in the U.S. military budget, could contribute to reluctance on the part of other powers to engage in nuclear arms reductions.
This analysis leads us to the conclusion that a large SBSS program which includes expensive new experimental facilities with weapons design capabilities, could lead to dangerous international instabilities. It could have profound negative repercussions on the functioning of both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the upcoming Comprehensive Test Ban treaty (CTB).
These principal findings are based on our detailed analysis of DOE data on safety and reliability problem types that is presented in the report. The main technical points in our analysis are as follows:
Discussion of Principal Findings:
Maintaining the safety of nuclear weapons should be one of the top priorities of the DOE's nuclear weapons complex as long as intact nuclear weapons remain in the arsenal. Accidental nuclear detonation or plutonium dispersal could have huge health and environmental consequences. However, the DOE has not demonstrated the need for the SBSS program to maintain nuclear safety. Nuclear weapons are currently safe, according to the DOE. Safety problems with primaries have never been linked to aging. Furthermore, 76 percent of the safety-related problem types in primaries were found in warheads produced around the time of the 1958-1961 U.S.-Soviet nuclear testing moratorium, a time of rushed design work as the United States scrambled to get designs into production.
Nuclear weapons are currently reliable, according to the DOE. The majority of reliability problem types affect non-nuclear components and the majority of reliability problem types have a minimal effect on the warhead. In light of these facts, the DOE has failed to state how the SBSS program would maintain the reliability of an arsenal for a policy of retaliatory nuclear deterrence -- that is, a policy of nuclear retaliation in response to first use of nuclear weapons by an adversary. However, if the purpose of the arsenal is a first strike, a higher degree of reliability may be necessary, because achieving precision and rated yield could be technical factors affecting the "success" of a first strike aimed at destroying an adversary's nuclear missiles.
Maintaining the ability to design and produce new nuclear weapons, or even making militarily significant modifications to existing warheads, could have serious implications for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and nuclear non-proliferation. The design capabilities of the SBSS program coupled with maintaining the Nevada Test Site in a state of readiness to resume testing could lead to serious new instabilities with unforeseeable consequences. For instance, it could lead to the disintegration of a Comprehensive Test Ban. It also violates the spirit of Article VI of the NPT under which the nuclear weapons states are pledged to pursue nuclear disarmament negotiations in "good faith."
The DOE has not considered alternative approaches to maintaining the safety of the nuclear arsenal after a CTB in its Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Stockpile Stewardship and Management. There are viable options which would not require new experimental facilities or the maintenance of a large cadre of weapons designers.
1 As noted in the preface, the other nuclear weapons states are pursuing similar policies.
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Added full report June 21, 2006