- - Monday, May 20, 2019

America has just entered a nuclear weapons crisis. For the first time in history, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has just published a scientific paper, by highly qualified nuclear weapons experts, saying that we can no longer have confidence that our nuclear weapons will perform as required. See “Issues in Science and Technology,” winter issue.

We depend on this nuclear stockpile for America’s existence. This scientific paper directly challenges the U.S. president’s annual certification to the nation of the performance, safety and reliability of the weapons in the stockpile. Resumption of underground nuclear testing hangs in the balance.

An immediate national response is essential. The president should take four actins without delay:

• First, President Trump should immediately establish a White House panel to review the issues raised by this scientific paper. The review should be performed by the nation’s pre-eminent nuclear weapons scientists from two eras.

Half the members should be scientists currently working at our nuclear weapons labs (Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia) who are most experienced in the hands-om development of computer codes which simulate nuclear detonations.

The other half (by actual count) should be those former scientists from the three labs who are most experienced in hands-on designing and underground testing of nuclear weapons in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Two important factors: First, this is a scientific issue; political considerations must not intrude, and political leaders should not shape the panel nor serve on it. Second, nuclear weapons scientists who were designing and testing weapons in 1960-1980 are rapidly passing from the active scene, so urgency is vital.

• Second, President Trump should immediately terminate the moratorium on underground nuclear testing which was established by President Bush I in 1992. Regardless of the above review, there is widespread agreement among those actively involved in the U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise that America must soon resume testing.

There are many reasons for this. All the weapons in the stockpile are far beyond the end of their design life. Most of our weapons have huge yields and leave immense residual radiation. They have no capability to deter many of our most dangerous nuclear threats. We urgently need new nukes, which will require testing.

Nuclear weapons are the most complex systems known to man. We have not tested any nuclear weapon for 27 years. Testing is urgently required. Virtually none of our scientists has the capability to design and carry out a nuclear test. Our nuclear test site in Nevada will have to be completely rebuilt.

Ours is a zero-yield moratorium, permitting no testing whatsoever, whereas our nuclear adversaries are able to conduct low-yield testing, which is quite adequate for their purposes. Russia is a quarter-century ahead of us in advanced nuclear weapons science, and China probably is, also. We are extremely vulnerable to technological surprise.

Our nuclear weapons scientists and engineers must regain the capability to design, test and produce nuclear weapons. In short, the moratorium must be terminated.

• Third, to balance termination of the moratorium, President Trump should make a formal, official announcement that he is not yet authorizing any nuclear tests.

• Fourth, President Trump should direct that the Nevada Nuclear Security Site be urgently and completely rebuilt. My personal estimate is that this will take about five years and cost about $2 billion.

Each of these four actions is essential. In addition — separately — we must realize that our stockpile certification process has failed us, and correct it.

America faces an existential crisis of our own making. Half-measures won’t help. Nuclear weapons are here to stay. Nuclear threats are becoming more varied, more dangerous and more likely to be carried out as each day passes. Our national security depends — as it did every day in the Cold War — on our having more advanced nuclear science, superior nuclear weapons and stronger nuclear forces than any our adversaries.

• Robert R. Monroe, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral, is the former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency.

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