Yes, America’s nuclear arsenal is old. But there’s simply no good reason to test a bomb in the 21st century.
- By Jeffrey LewisJeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
It’s been a rough transition for our friends overseeing the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. First, Donald Trump selected former Texas Gov. Rick Perry — a man who famously earned a D in a college course called Meats — to replace MIT physicist Ernie Moniz as secretary of energy. And now Gizmodo reports he has told the top two officials at National Nuclear Security Administration, Frank Klotz and Madelyn Creedon, to clean out their desks by January 20th with no plan to replace them anytime soon.
There were worries that Perry was in over his head. If Klotz and Creedon aren’t around to smooth the transition, those worries will only grow. For example, James Glanz, writing in the New York Times, notes that there is a small but vocal movement for the United States to resume underground nuclear explosions. The tunnels and shafts beneath the Nevada desert have largely lay dormant since the United States stopped conducting nuclear explosions in 1992, but a hardy bunch of nuclear weapons enthusiasts want that to change.
While the Times article is largely about the technical debate over whether the United States needs to resume nuclear testing, it is really a meditation on how the Trump administration, with its apparent disregard for expertise, will approach highly technical questions. It is an interesting question, but the article misses an important point: Nuclear weapons testing has never been a technical decision, but always a political one. Perry may not be the smartest missile in the silo, but he doesn’t have to be to understand that the United States shouldn’t resume nuclear testing. If the United States resumes testing, credit will go to Trump’s aggressive bar-stool belligerence, not any technical need.
One of the major misconceptions about U.S. nuclear testing is that its purpose is to establish what we might call statistical confidence in the stockpile. This misconception is strengthened by the tendency to analogize nuclear weapons to cars. “Absent testing, the arsenal today is something like a 1967 Chevy that sits for decades without being driven,” one of my colleagues, Tom Karako, was quoted as saying in the article. “You have to have the confidence that if you have to crank the engine, it will turn on.”
But nuclear weapons aren’t automobiles — unless your car explodes when you start it. (And that’s a different sort of problem in Las Vegas.) A car needs to start over and over again. Testing your car is fairly straightforward. But bombs? Nuclear or conventional, they start exactly once. You can’t test the one you plan to drop.
And, frankly, the United States has never really bothered. Historically, U.S. nuclear testing was about developing new designs, exploring weapon physics, and understanding weapon effect. Starting in the late 1970s, the United States conducted a series of just 17 “stockpile confidence tests” where actual weapons from the stockpile were tested. The other 1,037 nuclear tests were focused on weapons development. Nuclear weaponeers had more than 1,000 chances to start their ’67 Chevy and mostly responded with: “Nah, we’re good.”
Now, some weaponeers get kind of pissy when I say it like that. They will say that all the nuclear tests contributed to the confidence in our people who designed nuclear weapons and the processes used to make them. Which is a fair point and one I agree with, but the findings in question aren’t technical, so much as sociological or anthropological, and there might be other ways of acquiring that knowledge.
So what’s really motivating advocates of nuclear testing? One of my favorite anecdotes comes from a former lab director who observed that his colleagues were deeply concerned about the test ban treaty … until they were told that their budgets would remain about the same after any ban was in place. I’ve visited a lot of nuclear weapons labs around the world, including in the United Kingdom, France, and China, and their teams of scientists all have a lot in common with the Wu-Tang clan.
I don’t mean that lab directors are greedy, but the technical questions about stockpile reliability relate in complicated ways to fuzzy human issues like morale. And even technical questions don’t have straightforward answers. One early test-ban skeptic, Livermore’s Bruce Goodwin, later recounted that when the Clinton administration asked his lab to establish technical requirements for living under a test ban, he was tasked to make a “back-of-the-envelope calculation on the amount of computing power they would need to combine experimental data, design, and engineering models to certify nuclear weapons without testing.”
“I remember handing my answer in, thinking that they would kick me out of the room because it was insane at the time,” he told the journalists Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger. “It was 100 teraflops. That would be for a machine that could do one calculation only and take three months to complete it.” Despite this being a back-of-the-envelope calculation, the lab directors helped damn the test ban in the Senate by warning that it might be unrealistic — and if you know anything about supercomputing, you are probably already giggling. The fastest U.S. supercomputers working on nuclear weapons are about 18,000 times faster, and those aren’t even the fastest in the world. That computer is working on Chinese nuclear weapons, and it is almost 93,000 times faster.
Now, the point isn’t that computing capability solves all the problems related to our bombs. If anything, it’s the opposite. There isn’t a simple technical answer to stockpile confidence, in part because as the very word “confidence” suggests, this is a debate about how human beings feel about the technology at their disposal. Goodwin started as a skeptic, has become fairly optimistic but, as Washington Post contributing editor David Hoffman discovered, has also had moments of doubt. He’s an honest guy doing his best. Our scientists have more knowledge than ever about how our nuclear weapons work, but, as Perry could tell you, ignorance can be bliss.
And, of course, the humans who build the bombs aren’t the only complication. There are the neighbors. The current U.S. nuclear test site is on the outskirts of Las Vegas, close enough for visitors to actually view atmospheric nuclear tests from the city’s rooftops, something casinos were initially quick to market as a tourist attraction. (I think there is something especially dark about the idea of spending all night gambling away your life’s savings only to emerge into the bright desert morning and watch humanity rehearse its own extinction, but I was always a killjoy like that.)
But even if there are a lot of Vegas visitors who might want to feel the rumble of an underground nuclear test, the locals feel rather differently. As the city has sprawled, it has sprawled toward what is known as the Nevada National Security Site. And, it turns out, people don’t like nuclear tests in their backyard. The George W. Bush administration pushed to increase the readiness of the test site in case a nuclear explosion was needed, but ran into lots of political opposition. When the Defense Department planned a large conventional explosion at the site, called Divine Strake, the locals went nuts. And the locals, in this case, extended to people in neighboring states like Utah, where people were worried about radioactive dust from past nuclear tests being kicked up into the air. One of my favorite pictures from this period shows an ashen Jon Huntsman, then Utah’s governor, sitting through a public hearing on Divine Strake. He looks desperate to be anywhere else.
The Department of Energy was able to conduct smaller one-ton explosions in secret in recent years, announcing them only afterward. (We could see the events in the seismic catalogs before they were deleted.) But secrecy won’t be possible for a return to full-blown nuclear testing.
Which brings us back to Rick Perry. He might be as dumb as a box of rocks, but he’s a talented politician. He knows that elected officials in Nevada and Utah want no part of a return to nuclear testing. So you can forget all the technical worries; the United States is unlikely to resume nuclear testing absent some catastrophic event. And even in that case, I am not sure the Department of Energy would be able to convince anyone that the problem was as dire as they alleged.
And then there is another problem. We’re not the only country contemplating a return to nuclear testing! If we start, China and Russia will follow. Another Perry — Bill Perry, a former secretary of defense during the Clinton administration — has, on a number of occasions, expressed his firm belief that Russia may resume testing. “I’m confident they’re working on a new bomb,” Perry told the New York Times. “And I’m confident they’re asking for testing.” He made two similar statements in his memoir, My Journey on the Nuclear Brink.
My colleagues at the Middlebury Institute, wondering whether there was evidence to support Perry’s claim, tasked an Israeli satellite to take images of Russia’s nuclear test site at Novaya Zemlya. What we found surprised us. The images — which are hosted at our website, Geo4Nonpro — show the test site undergoing a major face-lift. Russia is rebuilding the main support area where its nuclear weaponeers live during test series, completing what may be a dedicated facility for subcritical nuclear testing, and digging new tunnels that could accommodate nuclear tests. All that activity is enough to make a fellow suspicious.
You don’t have to get an A in Meats to understand that a resumption of U.S. nuclear tests wouldn’t make the country’s stockpile more reliable, would kick up an epic political shit storm, and probably prompt China and Russia into following suit with their own nuclear explosions. Perry might not be able to tell a B61 from a ’67 Chevy, but I am confident he can figure this one out.
Photo credit: MIKE STONE/Getty Images