Why Are We Still Researching Nuclear Weapons?

Lillian Nurmela

all the furor over insufficient security at our nuclear weapons labs and the
claim that China has stolen our secrets, neither the media nor Congress has
questioned why the U.S. is continuing to research nuclear weapons. There are
8,400 operational warheads, of 12 types, in the U.S. arsenal. The first nuclear
weapon with a new military capability since the end of the Cold War—the B61-11
earth penetrator—was flight tested (dropped by a B-2 bomber) in Alaska last
year. Our submarines armed with powerful Trident nuclear warheads sail the
oceans of the world.

Current U.S.
nuclear weapons policy was established in the Presidential Decision Directive
secretly drafted in 1996 and quietly signed by President Clinton in November
1977. Although the contents are highly classified, portions were leaked to the Washington
and then reprinted in other newspapers. The guide lines in the
Directive were reported to be as follows:

  • 1. The U.S. will continue
    to maintain nuclear weapons as the cornerstone of U.S. defense.

  • 2. The U.S. reserves the
    right to be the first to use nuclear weapons during a conflict.

  • 3. Nuclear weapons may be
    used against "rogue" nations.

  • 4. The U.S. will maintain
    the capacity to design, develop, and produce nuclear weapons.

Management of our
nuclear weapons facilities has been assigned to the Department of Energy
(DOE)—an indication of the obfuscation which characterizes U.S. nuclear
weapons terminology since probably most Americans assume that the DOE is
diligently researching clean, renewable sources of energy.

A second, even
more blatant ploy, is the title assigned to the weapons program—Science Based
Stockpile Stewardship and Management. The DOE studiously avoids the word,
"nuclear," in all its titles. From the beginning, spokespersons for the
Department of Energy always insisted that the purpose of Stockpile Stewardship
and Management was to "insure the safety and reliability of the nuclear
weapons stockpile." Of course, with the Chinese spying contretemps, it is
clear that Stockpile Stewardship is really about research and
development—research into new weapons and development of modifications to
existing nuclear weapons. In actuality, Stockpile Stewardship and Management is
an enormous program that exceeds in cost and scope the Manhattan Project of the
1940s, which brought us the atomic bomb. It is expected to cost $60 billion by
the year 2010. It includes plans for continued capability for underground
testing. It has begun a program to provide each of the three DOE labs with new
supercomputers with thousands of times the performance of current
supercomputers. They will be used to combine data from past nuclear explosions
so that the performance of new weapons car’ be predicted without testing.

A frightening
aspect of Stockpile Stewardship and Management is the Academic Strategic
Alliances Program, which uses the unlimited funds of the DOE to enlist
universities in related research. So far at least $20 million has been awarded
to each of the following universities: California Institute of Technology,
Stanford University, University of Illinois, University of Chicago, and
University of Utah.

The University of
California at Berkeley, in collaboration with the DOE weapons lab at Los Alamos,
New Mexico, is working on the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility
(DAHRT). The DAHRT is basically an X-Ray machine with two arms at right angles
that will take very fast-moving pictures of the explosion of plutonium pits.
Plutonium pits are the core of nuclear weapons, and plutonium is the most deadly
and longest lived (over 200,000 years) material in the world. The DOE plans to
spend more than $1 billion on expanded facilities for producing plutonium pits.

At the center of
the Stockpile Stewardship and Management program is the National Ignition
Facility (NIF). Peace activists say that NIF stands for Nuclear Insanity
Forever. It is being installed ad Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which
is about 40 miles east of San Francisco.

The National
Ignition Facility includes a huge, 130 ton spherical target chamber designed to
contain thermonuclear or fusion explosions. The sphere spans 30 feet across. Its
aluminum alloy walls are 4 inches thick, constructed of 18 welded plates. It is
pockmarked by 118 holes of various sizes intended to accommodate 192 focused
laser beams and a plethora of sophisticated diagnostic instruments. It has been
lowered into a hole three stories deep. Pellets stuffed with radioactive
tritiumand deuterium will be placed in the sphere, one at a time, to be
detonated by an intense x-radiation field generated by NlF’s multiple lasers.
The cost of the National Ignition Facility will be at least $5 billion.
According to Livermore Lab and DOE documents, the National Ignition Facility
will be used to advance nuclear weapons design knowledge and to train a "new
generation" of nuclear weaponeers.

Hisham Zerriffi
of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research states that if the
research at the NIF is successful, it could become a key part of developing pure
fusion weapons. They would not require plutonium or highly enriched uranium and
thus make nuclear weapons widely achievable.

In 1996 the
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed by the U.S. and over 100 other
countries. Its purpose is to halt development of nuclear weapons by prohibiting
tests of new weapons. To date only 41 nations have ratified the treaty, and the
U.S. Senate has not yet ratified it.

The U.S. official
position is that "in-laboratory" testing and "sub-critical" underground
testing do not conflict with the terms of the treaty. Other countries, however,
are aware of our elaborate and costly Stockpile Stewardship program, much of
which is clearly designed to test new weapons without the necessity of
underground, chain-reaction explosions.

On June 16, 1999,
the International Herald Tribune carried a statement by Jiang Zemin,
President of China. It was reprinted in the Los Angeles Times but
probably not in any other U.S. newspaper. Following are two paragraphs from this
important and remarkable statement: "For 50 years, hanging over our heads like
a sword of Damocles, nuclear weapons have never ceased threatening humanity’s
survival. The end of the Cold War has not brought about their disappearance.

"To reduce the
armaments of others while keeping one’s own intact, to reduce the obsolete
while developing the state-of-the-art, to require other countries to
scrupulously abide by treaties while giving oneself freedom of action, all these
acts make a mockery of international efforts and run counter to the fundamental
objective of disarmament."

At present the
following nations, in addition to the U.S., have nuclear weapons: Great Britain,
France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel. Actually any country with
nuclear power plants or a research reactor has a headstart on producing nuclear
weapons, and nuclear weapon theory and technology are available to the
scientific community of the world.

As Dr. Ronald
McCoy of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War stated so
succinctly after the Indian and Pakistani tests: "We have only two
choices—nuclear proliferation or nuclear disarmament."

The Tokyo Forum
for Nuclear Non-proliferation, an international group of experts convened by
Japan last year, delivered its report to the United Nations on August 4. It
warns that the most immediate threat is to Asia but that deteriorating relations
between the U.S. and China as well as Russia are making nuclear disarmament
harder to achieve.

The unilateral
NATO bombing of Yugoslavia has made Russia feel isolated and threatened.
Consequently, it is becoming more reliant on its nuclear weapons. An
international agreement for abolition of nuclear weapons is imperative. The
nuclear weapons states should begin negotiations now without being sidetracked
by issues such as ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, START II,
or even de-alerting.

Two excellent
resolutions have been presented to Congress. The first, HR 82, calls on the
president to initiate negotiations on an international treaty to eliminate
nuclear weapons. The second, HR 74, calls for scaling back the provocative and
wasteful Stockpile Stewardship and Management program. We should urge our
representatives to support these resolutions. Finally, we must insist that the
U.S. obey the unanimous World Court (International Court of Justice) decision of
1996 that all states are obligated to "pursue in good faith and bring to a
conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament."

Nurmela is an anti-nuclear activist and is editor of the joint newsletter of
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, East Bay, and Women for