Last Sunday passed with little notice. It marked 20 years since the last nuclear test conducted by the United States. The test, appropriately named "Divider," was a divider between an era of responsible U.S. nuclear weapon policy and management and the subsequent years of negligence and decline.
This test was the last gasp of a program barely started to bring our nuclear stockpile into the post-Cold War world. The time to restore and update U.S. nuclear weapon capabilities is long overdue.
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush reluctantly signed into law a nuclear test moratorium in hopes of saving the Superconducting Super Collider -- a never-to-be-realized particle accelerator planned in Texas. Though the law eventually expired, nuclear tests were prohibited by presidential order throughout the eight Clinton years. Complaints that the stockpile and the quality of the U.S. nuclear weapon complex would decline were muted by promises of generous funding for "non-nuclear" nuclear weapon research.
Legislation was also passed making it illegal for our scientists to work on new nuclear weapons. For years, nuclear weapon scientists shouldered the unpopular but vital mission of "thinking about the unthinkable" -- developing nuclear weapons to assure the credibility and reliability of our deterrent. With the passage of this law, a noble responsibility was declared illegal.
Consumed by the terrorism threat, the eight years of President George W. Bush's administration were marked by continued, even if unintended, neglect of U.S. nuclear weapons. Expectations of friendship with Russia led to further reductions in the numbers of U.S. weapons, while those remaining grew older and increasingly obsolete, both technically and tactically.
The Obama administration makes little pretense of responsible husbandry, even of a geriatric nuclear stockpile. It fully embraces the goal of nuclear disarmament and measures progress by how fast we dismantle and disarm. As a long-worshipped leftist goal, no justification is needed for this policy within the administration. It is reinforced by the need to reduce spending in a stagnant economy, to support profligate spending on more popular priorities and a compliant, stressed-out military.
Twenty years have passed, and where are we? The number and variety of weapons in the stockpile have been reduced to levels not seen since the mid-1950s. If the Obama administration gets its way, the stockpile will soon look like it did in the 1940s.
The few nuclear weapon types remaining were appropriate for a Cold War nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union but, frozen in time, it is hard to imagine they are a good fit in today's more complex world. Our remaining nuclear systems were designed when eight-track tapes were an innovation.
Many of the experienced scientists and engineers at the nuclear weapons laboratories have died, retired or been dismissed from the team. Serious thinking about modernizing our arsenal is taboo. Any suggestion that nuclear testing should be resumed is stifled by the layers of managers, bureaucrats and politicians who control the budgets. Survival is the name of the game, not science in the interest of national security.
Some of our newer scientists have convinced themselves they know so much that more nuclear testing is superfluous. True, labs have computer simulations that rival most video games, but they are not the real world. The B-52 bomber is an old weapon system, but it is flown quite often. If it sat in a hangar for 20 years and only "flown" by simulator, would you trust it? Would an enemy fear it?
Don't forget that our nuclear weapon enterprise is "managed" by the Department of Energy, a bureaucracy that may be the most ineffective and mismanaged agency in American history. If you could peek behind the curtain, you shouldn't be surprised to see a nuclear version of Solyndra.
Also telling, the department's Nevada Test Site has been given a new name: the "Nevada National Security Site." Despite the test site's history, political correctness demands avoidance of the "N-word" (nuclear) and the "T-word" (test).
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the North Korean leader-du-jour threaten others with nuclear annihilation, implied or otherwise. Who knows what level of self-destruction they would risk for their cause? Our weakness and neglect of the U.S. nuclear weapon enterprise only entices them. Are they likely to take seriously the threat of retaliation by a president who won't test his most powerful weapons for fear of offending the Sierra Club?
If, after the election, adult supervision returns to the White House and Senate, a Romney administration will be faced with a long list of neglected and mismanaged federal responsibilities. On that list should be a realistic review of U.S. nuclear weapon policy.
Restoration of U.S. nuclear weapon capabilities is long overdue. It isn't clear that large numbers of nuclear weapons are necessary, but new designs and new ways of deployment should be examined -- without artificial, childish constraints. Nuclear test resumption must be on the table. Let's never forget, these are nuclear weapons -- they demand nuclear testing.
If realism and responsibility are restored to U.S. nuclear weapon policy, the prefix "super" will be unquestioned when the United States is called a superpower.
Kenneth J. Adney, a physicist who worked on nuclear weapons programs for the federal government for 35 years, was involved in more than 100 nuclear tests.