- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2001

The Bush administration's call for reassessment of national security needs, including nuclear weapons policy that deals with targeting and nuclear weapons stockpile levels, gives the Department of Energy (DOE) a rare opportunity. In conjunction with the reassessment, DOE has the opportunity to restructure the stockpile stewardship program, straightening out some of the severe convolutions that have grown into the program since the United States stopped nuclear testing.

Initially the stockpile stewardship program embarked on a technology based program directed to an increased understanding of nuclear weapon performance that would enable high confidence in stockpile safety, security and reliability to be retained. But as the political constraint of a permanent but unratified Comprehensive Test Ban was imposed, the goal of the program changed to maintaining high confidence without nuclear explosive testing. The technicians' response was basically "we will try, we like the money, but no guarantees."

In recent years, the "no guarantees" clause has been increasingly overlooked by test-ban enthusiasts. The result is an open-ended program. There is no definition of milestones, which if successfully completed, would assure the necessary stockpile confidence. The dilemma is straightforward: It is not logically possible to develop the levels of information, calculational sophistication, supporting theory, and laboratory experiments and then to integrate the results into high-confidence predictions of weapon safety, security, and reliability without the proof of testing. Credible well-engineered products require testing of predicted performance. And stockpile stewardship is a pillar of the nation's national security.

One option for a restructured program is based on a political decision that there will be no nuclear explosive testing. In that case a research program directed to nuclear weapon phenomenology could be undertaken with the explicit recognition that confidence in the current weapon stockpile will be increasingly uncertain as mistakes in judgment creep into maintenance decisions. Today's warheads will eventually have to be phased out. A more realistic option is to carry forth a pragmatically directed program with occasional testing up to, say, ten kilotons. This testing would be directed toward establishing the integrated calculational, archival, theoretical and lab experimental understanding of weapon phenomenology. Appropriate confidence should be maintainable and recruitment and morale problems alleviated.

It is important to recognize that we are not suggesting a return to World War II or Cold-War days. There have been distinct phases to the United States' nuclear weapon program in the past and further evolution to a new streamlined phase can be envisioned.

The time-urgent Manhattan Project took several years to complete and is not a model for the future. The megaton atmospheric tests in the Marshall Islands are also from another time and way of thinking. We learned a lot along the Cold-War way; among the lessons was that we did not need to depend on millions of tons of high explosive yield for a deterrent.

Now we are at a stage where reliance on large numbers of missiles may give way to smaller forces that nevertheless continue to rely on fewer of today's sophisticated warheads. Today, there is wide recognition that nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented and may spread to several new nations. At some point high-confidence lower-yield weapons based on current designs may also be appropriate. It is undoubtedly prudent to retain a viable nuclear weapon capability. Few embrace unilateral disarmament in today's uncertain world. Our nuclear testing needs may be less, but they are still there.

The present situation can be bluntly stated: We taxpayers are asked to spend an undetermined amount of money and DOE and the labs will tell us when enough is enough. The dangling carrot is that perhaps a test ban might be technically supportable at some time with assurance that our weapons will perform appropriately. In the meantime, for political reasons, we are not to conduct nuclear tests to check the progress of the stewardship program (although it is arguable whether the nuclear weapons capability of any other nation is substantively influenced by whether we test or not). Of course, there is a catch. A president can undercut technical reality and ignore the lack of technical unanimity by simply asserting the political judgment that the stockpile is safe, secure, and reliable.

From the technical point of view, we eventually must test for stockpile assurance; we cannot wish testing away. We should be strong enough as a nation to realize that testing, as in every other engineering field, is necessary for product confidence. Perhaps the most significant outcome of stockpile stewardship reassessment is the possibility of doing away with the logical impossibility, but implied ability, of maintaining the current stockpile with confidence in perpetuity without testing. In its place there could be a focused, efficient and credible program relying on occasional, relatively small nuclear tests. America should seize the opportunity.

James McNally retired after working more than two decades in the Los Alamos National Laboratory's nuclear weapon program.

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