U.S. Can Maintain Nuclear Arsenal Without Testing: Expert Report

A radioactive cloud from a 1955 nuclear test detonation in Nevada. A technical report issued on Friday says the United States has the capability to maintain its nuclear arsenal without further explosive testing(AP Photo).
A radioactive cloud from a 1955 nuclear test detonation in Nevada. A technical report issued on Friday says the United States has the capability to maintain its nuclear arsenal without further explosive testing(AP Photo).

WASHINGTON -- A technical report issued on Friday could strengthen the Obama administration’s argument that the United States can feel safe in becoming a full participant in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (see GSN, March 19).

A panel of experts convened by the independent National Research Council addressed two key issues in the long-running debate over the accord: Can the U.S. nuclear arsenal be sustained without nuclear testing, and could other nations get away with covert detonations that would help them to build or improve their own strategic stockpiles?

The answers, in short, are yes and not easily, the report says.

“Provided that sufficient resources and a national commitment to stockpile stewardship are in place, the committee judges that the United States has the technical capabilities to maintain a safe, secure and reliable stockpile of nuclear weapons into the foreseeable future without nuclear-explosion testing,” according to the panel of scientists, engineers and government specialists.

The complex of sensors deployed under the treaty regime, alongside the United States’ more sophisticated detection technologies, “will reduce the likelihood of successful clandestine nuclear-explosion testing, and inhibit the development of new types of strategic nuclear weapons,” the experts said.

The United States over several decades detonated more than 1,000 nuclear devices underground and in the atmosphere before declaring a voluntary moratorium on testing in the early 1990s. It is among 182 nations that have signed the treaty, which is intended to provide a full prohibition on nuclear explosive trials, but the Clinton administration’s effort to secure Senate ratification failed in 1999.

Legislative approval by 44 “Annex 2” states is required for the pact to enter into force (see GSN, Feb. 6). The United States is one of eight holdout nations within that group, alongside China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan.

President Obama made CTBT ratification a key part of a broader nonproliferation campaign laid out in a widely noted April 2009 speech in Prague. The White House and Vice President’s Office requested the NRC report, which is a follow-up to a similar 2002 study of technical issues related to the accord.

In a brief statement to Global Security Newswire, the White House noted the release of the report but provided no updates on its plans to formally pursue CTBT ratification on Capitol Hill.

Administration officials have said they are first conducting an informational program aimed at strengthening understanding of the issue among lawmakers and the public.

Observers have said they do not expect any sort of push for Senate approval before presidential and congressional elections in November. Action after that, though, is likely to require Obama’s re-election and support from some GOP members, as 67 affirmative votes are necessary to secure ratification.

Thirteen Republican senators backed Obama’s first major arms control measure, the U.S.-Russian New START nuclear treaty. However, some GOP lawmakers have in recent months expressed deep skepticism about the president’s commitment to sustaining the U.S. nuclear deterrent, and leaders in the chamber have shown no signs of favoring the test ban (see GSN, March 9 and July 18, 2011).

The experts who produced the new report avoided stating whether the country would benefit from joining the treaty, sticking strictly to technical issues.

In the absence of nuclear testing, the United States has established a Stockpile Stewardship Program under the Energy Department that employs computer models and other technological and scientific means to ensure a safe, secure and reliable nuclear arsenal.

The program’s technical aspects have advanced further than expected by the specialists who prepared the 2002 NRC analysis, according to this week’s report: “The intervening 10 years have seen the [Stockpile Stewardship Program] discover and resolve significant stockpile issues, but notable concerns have also arisen about maintaining the physical and human infrastructure needed” for the initiative.

Accomplishments over the last decade include development of peta-scale computing power -- capable of conducting thousands of trillions of calculations per second in addressing stockpile issues -- and completion of several facilities with warhead research applications, the experts said.

Programs to lengthen the service life of nuclear warheads in the arsenal have also proven capable of refurbishing full warheads, or reusing and replacing parts as necessary.

Challenges to maintaining that capacity, the NRC panel said, will include ensuring a strong program of surveillance to identify warhead glitches; updating warhead manufacturing plants, some of which have been in use for five decades; and keeping a “competent and capable” cadre of nuclear personnel within the Energy and Defense departments.

The last 10 years have also seen advances in seismic and radionuclide technology that allow for improved detection capacities for covert nuclear explosions conducted underground or in the atmosphere, the specialists reported. Systems are also in place for identifying blasts underwater or in space.

The United States can verify member states’ adherence to the treaty’s global ban on nuclear trial explosions using its own technical assets, data collection by military and spy services and the International Monitoring System established by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, the National Research Council said in a press statement.

More than 280 of 337 planned IMS detection sites have begun operation around the world. “The United States should support both the completion of the IMS and its operations, training and maintenance, whether or not the CTBT enters into force,” the report says. The experts also called for continued development of U.S. detection capabilities, including strengthening of seismic stations operated under the United States Atomic Energy Detection System.

“A sustained, predicable program of investment in nuclear-explosion monitoring R&D should be coordinated among the responsible U.S. agencies,” the report says. “This program should specifically include investments in university research and training programs focused on technical disciplines critical for treaty monitoring.”

Treaty critics have argued that some nations might seek to avoid detection as they set off nuclear devices to ensure their budding or expanding arsenals function correctly, or simply might build a weapon without testing.

Both scenarios are possible, the NRC panel acknowledged. Given the worldwide technologies now in place, though, any blast of more than a few kilotons in force would be noticed even using evasion methods such as curbing the seismic energy of the detonation or conducting a separate explosion in a mine in an attempt to "mask" the nuclear test, the report says.

Seismic stations are able to detect underground tests with an explosive force significantly under 1 kiloton, according to the research council. The CTBT preparatory commission, charged with building and maintaining the treaty’s technological architecture for verification, has noted it detected rumblings from North Korea’s 2006 and 2009 subterranean nuclear device trials.

A 1 kiloton blast would be 10 to 20 times less powerful than the force of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan to close World War II.

“The states most capable of carrying out evasive nuclear-explosion testing successfully are Russia and China,” the report states. “Countries with less nuclear explosion testing experience would face serious costs, practical difficulties in implementation, and uncertainties in how effectively a test could be concealed.”

Beijing and Moscow would be likely to need multiple multikiloton-blast tests in producing new strategic weapons that go beyond their existing designs. Such events are not likely to go unnoticed, the expert committee said.

A less atomically advanced nation with an adequate amount of fissile material could forgo testing to produce a “single-stage, unboosted nuclear weapon,” the group determined. It added, though, that the existing U.S. deterrent would provide a sufficient countermeasure to such a threat without necessitating a return to Washington’s own nuclear trial detonations.

“While such threats are of great concern, the United States would be able to respond to them as effectively under the CTBT as it could without the CTBT,” the assessment states.

The United States, it added, could also focus its advanced sensors on nations of particular concern. Ultimately, if faced with a threat deemed to demand the creation of new nuclear weapons, Washington could pull out of the treaty under the supreme national interest clause.

The treaty’s entry into force would allow member states to demand on-site investigations of suspected nuclear tests by other CTBT nations. Such inspections would offer a significant potential for identifying proof of any explosion with a yield greater than 0.1 kilotons, the report says.

March 30, 2012

WASHINGTON -- A technical report issued on Friday could strengthen the Obama administration’s argument that the United States can feel safe in becoming a full participant in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.