America has two grave nuclear weapons vulnerabilities which are little known and less understood by the nation’s national security leadership. First, we don’t know that the nuclear weapons in our arsenal will work; and second, our underground nuclear test capability in Nevada is so deteriorated that we are unable to conduct prompt tests to verify and certify these weapons. America is living with high existential risk.
Let’s start with the condition of our nuclear arsenal. When the Cold War ended in 1991, America’s nuclear weapons capability — which won that war was the best in the world by far. But America then pursued a 17-year unannounced nuclear weapons freeze, followed by eight years of President Obama’s major nuclear cutbacks. Today, a quarter-century later, here’s how we stand. All of our nuclear weapons are years past the end of their design life. All were designed against Cold War threats, and they’re unable to deter many of today’s most serious nuclear threats. Research into advanced weapons has not been permitted, making us highly vulnerable to technological surprise. We have almost no scientists, engineers and managers who have ever designed and produced a nuclear weapon.
Most damaging of all, we have not conducted a single underground nuclear weapons test in 26 years. The nuclear weapons business is based upon the world of science, which depends upon on the scientific method, which centers on testing. As a substitute for testing, we’ve attempted to create computer codes which simulate a nuclear detonation. It is highly unwise to stake America’s continued existence on this. In the words of a legendary Los Alamos scientist, Dr. John Richter, “The idea that you can have a computer code that has all the secrets in it is bull.”
A nuclear weapon is made up of about 6,000 parts, and most of them change with age. Nuclear weapons design is both an art and a science, and the intuition of experienced designers plays a big role. Computers don’t understand this. Moreover, as another famed Los Alamos scientist, Merri Wood, said of nuclear weapons: “These are close to being the most nonlinear things on earth.” The slightest change — in any direction — may cause total failure to detonate “falling off the cliff;” in designers’ parlance. Computers are based on linearity.
Another major problem, during the testing era, key design changes made at the last minute were often not recorded, nor were the drawings updated, because of the Cold War’s pressure of time. Thus today’s computer codes, built on old test data, may be fatally incorrect.
Recently, two distinguished senior scientists at Los Alamos produced a scientific paper (awaiting publication) which seriously questions whether the nuclear performance of the weapons in today’s arsenal can be depended upon. In their words: “the physical state of weapons in today’s stockpile differs from what it was when their nuclear performance was tested, and the current nuclear test moratorium precludes a decisive determination of whether these changes in physical state adversely impact performance.”
Without question, America must resume underground nuclear testing. Russia and China are now aggressive nuclear threats, and North Korea and Iran are threatening nuclear terrorism, triggering a global cascade of proliferation. President Trump must terminate Bush I’s moratorium and direct an immediate initial test.
Now let’s look at our underground nuclear testing capability at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), where we tested (1951-1992). Testing was a huge endeavor, employing more than 7,000 people at NNSS, supported by a nationwide industry of more than 90,000 highly trained, experienced people. Most of this is gone and, after 26 non-testing years, virtually none of the much-reduced NNSS staff has ever seen an underground nuclear test. Most of the NNSS equipment has not been adequately maintained, the technology is far outdated and many companies that provided it no longer exist.
What’s required is not test resumption, but reinvention. The paragraphs below describe some of the major activities involved.
The “Authorization Basis” for testing, the president’s legal authorization for nuclear testing, must be reestablished, a huge endeavor. Two immense personnel actions are required: Shifting the best and most test-experienced laboratory and NNSS personnel into test work; and locating and recovering similar personnel, now retired or otherwise employed.
A high-level Departments of Energy and Defense team selects the highest priority test; detailed test design is accomplished; maximum credible yield is determined, leading to depth-of-burial decision (1,300-4,000 feet deep); based on NNSS geology and previous tests, the test hole is created and test rack produced; environmental impact statement is approved; and wide-ranging encroachment-relief actions are accomplished regarding NNSS and Las Vegas developments over the last 26 years.
Since the two design labs have gone down-hole by different methods in the past, a Uniform Fielding Model must be developed. Of paramount importance is “diagnostics,” the recording of test results. The whole purpose of the test is to obtain these; and since they all occur within a few millionths of a second after fission begins, this is high-tech business. Both the hundreds of instruments and the miles of cabling must be state-of-the-art, probably designed specifically for this test, and possibly produced by new contractors.
Another paramount issue is “containment,” ensuring that no radioactivity ever surfaces. Many are involved in containment, but the court of last resort is the Containment Evaluation Panel. This “red-team” must be composed of old-timers. Finally, the years of test preparation will be beset by continuing legal challenges, protests and demonstrations.
My personal estimate is that the first test will cost about $2 billion and require four to five years of preparation. America’s leaders and public must be convinced to support this. If we do not launch it immediately, we may well lose America.
• Robert R. Monroe, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral, is the former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency.