It's time for America to resume nuclear testing

It's time for America to resume nuclear testing
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America must resume underground nuclear testing, and we must do it immediately. Our lives depend upon it. The very existence of the United States may well depend upon it.

During World War II, we developed nuclear weapons through testing, and they enabled us to save many millions of lives in ending that conflict. During the half-century of Cold War we tested nuclear weapons as needed. We won that war because the testing enabled us to gain and hold a supremacy in nuclear technology and weapons that the Soviet Union could not match. 

But in 1992, our president unwisely declared — voluntarily and unilaterally — a U.S. moratorium on nuclear testing. Today, a quarter-century later, we are risking everything by mindlessly continuing to observe this moratorium. We don’t question it. We don’t debate it. We don’t think about it. The reasons we entered into it no longer exists, and we don’t even recognize it. Like lemmings, we continue to race toward the edge of the cliff.

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It's time for America to wake up.

 

From the moment we created nuclear weapons, the U.S. has led the international effort to control them, to enable the world to live comfortably with nuclear weapons. We led all the early nonproliferation efforts. The U.S was the foremost creator of the landmark Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970 – the greatest arms control treaty in existence.

For the past five decades America has been the world’s strongest nonproliferation activist, creating more programs, finding more efforts, and supporting more non-governmental organizations than any other nation. Finally, for the past eight years our President Obama has made “a world with nuclear weapons” America’s paramount national objective, backing it up with deep cutbacks of all types in the U.S. nuclear weapons capability.

What is the result of these decades of intense nonproliferation effort? Total failure internationally; and grave nuclear weakness and vulnerability for America. 

The world has given passive nonproliferation a good try, and it simply doesn’t work. Nuclear threats have increased immensely — technologically, geographically, and numerically — particularly during the Obama years.

Now, two rogue states, North Korea and Iran, are creating such a global cascade of proliferation (in self-defense) such that nuclear weapons will soon be commonplace, uncounted, many uncontrolled, and frequently used. Imagine demolished, radioactive cites, large and small, dotting the globe in a world of nuclear horror and chaos. The only way to prevent that scenario is through active nonproliferation.

The NPT gave this forceful answer a strong start by creating two tiers of states: the five approved nuclear weapons states (permanent members of the United Nations Security Council), and establishing all others (currently 185) as non-nuclear weapons states. Clearly, the long-term solution is to charge these five with the responsibility for enforcing nonproliferation, individually or collectively, on behalf of the world. To ensure they have the capability as well as the responsibility, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty must be inapplicable to them. This must be America’s global diplomatic crusade for the next decade, as soon as we have denuclearized the two rogues, with military force, if necessary.

Unfortunately, since the Cold War ended in 1991 America’s misguided emphasis on passive nonproliferation, has degraded our nuclear weapons capability beyond belief. We were in a nuclear freeze for almost two decades, followed by Obama’s active dismantlement. Here’s how we stand today. No U.S. nuke has been tested for a quarter-century; we cannot be sure they will work. Every weapon is years beyond the end of its design life. Designed for massive destruction, our arsenal is unable to deter most of today’s nuclear threats. We have no capability to produce plutonium pits (the heart of nuclear weapons); recovery will take a decade.

We’ve done no research whatsoever in advanced nuclear technologies; our adversaries are decades ahead of us. Our scientists, designers, engineers, and production managers have no experience in their professions. Our testing facilities, and knowledge, are virtually non-existent; recovery will take years.

All of these capabilities must be recovered in full — as rapidly as possible — and the key to everything is nuclear testing. We must resume underground nuclear testing as soon as possible. 

For the Energy Department, the highest priority (existential) need is testing the principal deployed warheads of our strategic deterrent (W76, W78, B61 and so on.) to ensure their reliability. Almost as urgent is the need to conduct exploratory testing of advanced, low-yield (10-100 ton) warheads. Russia is decades ahead. Exploratory work maximizing fusion rather than fission output is vital, possibly leading to pure fusion warheads. Other exploratory testing is essential if we are to avoid technological surprise.

The Defense Department’s underground testing in the essential military science of “nuclear weapons effects” is in even worse shape, as their national lab for this purpose (Defense Nuclear Agency) was terminated twenty years ago.

Of broad, overreaching importance is bringing the “scientific method” (which centers on testing) back into all our nuclear weapons laboratories.

The nation’s top nuclear strategists and experts are within weeks or months of producing the Nuclear Posture Review, which will establish the nuclear weapons policies of the Trump presidency. Indications are they will shrink from nuclear test resumption, as have our indifferent leaders for 25 years. If they do, America may cease to exist before there’s another chance. We must bite the bullet. Announce nuclear test resumption as the central element of the Nuclear Posture Review, and then work round-the-clock to detonate the highest priority test within three to five years.

Robert R. Monroe, vice admiral, U.S. Navy (Ret.), is former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency.