Jon Kyl and the Resumption of Nuclear Testing

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl called for a resumption of nuclear testing. Such a step would be both unnecessary and a potentially disastrous threat to our national security.

I am no pacifist, and I favor maintaining a strong and credible nuclear deterrent. It is for that very reason that I oppose a resumption of nuclear testing. It would in no way strengthen us. Rather, it would promote nuclear proliferation and result in a weakening of the nuclear posture of the United States vis-à-vis its potential nuclear armed opponents.

Obviously, Senator Kyl has heard some of these arguments, but they somehow don’t seem to sink in. He notes in his article that, “There’s a related theory, which is that the U.S. has to ratify the CTBT if it wants to have any credibility or leadership on nonproliferation,” but then dismisses these arguments with the claim that, “Aside from the fact that countries will act in their best interest whether or not the U.S. ‘leads’ them, no one can legitimately question U.S. commitment on proliferation issues.” I, for one, would question the U.S. commitment on proliferation issues if we resumed testing, whether Kyl considered it legitimate or not, and I would hardly be alone in that conclusion. Beyond that, his assertion that other countries will act in their own best interests ignores the reality that the actions of the United States can have a substantial bearing on what those best interests happen to be, particularly in matters relating to nuclear proliferation. Take, for example, Iran. If she tests a nuclear device after her oft-repeated denial of any desire to do so, she will become an international pariah, and likely subject herself to severe economic sanctions. She will also provide moral backing to those in Israel and the United States who advocate an attack on her nuclear facilities, greatly increasing the chances that one will occur. However, if she tested a nuclear device after the United States had resumed testing its own weapons, she could and would portray it as a legitimate act that had been forced on her by the actions of her enemies. The idea that the path chosen by the United States would have “no bearing” on her national interests is absurd.

Kyl cites the danger that clandestine nuclear tests cannot be verified and other nations will be able to test on the sly. To “prove” this dubious assertion, he notes that monitoring systems “failed to collect necessary radioactive gases and particulates to prove that a test had occurred” following the latest test by North Korea. In fact, seismic devices did detect it, in spite of the fact that its estimated yield was only a few kilotons. I have heard no credible argument to the effect that major nuclear powers could substantially enhance the power of their arsenals vis-à-vis the United States with clandestine tests that had a significant chance of going undetected. If anyone who actually knows what they’re talking about cares to make such an argument, let them put their cards on the table.

The part of Kyl’s argument that is likely to carry the most weight is the contention that there are serious concerns about the aging and reliability of our arsenal. To bolster his argument, he cites the testimony of C. Paul Robinson, former Director of Sandia National Laboratories, before the House Armed Services Committee last year. In fact, this testimony is very interesting in its own right, and, among other things has a direct bearing on the issue of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), which was promoted by the Bush Administration, but wisely rejected by Congress. It’s exactly what one might have expected to hear from a weaponeer at Los Alamos if one were transported back in time to the 1970’s or 80’s. In fact, that’s exactly what Robinson was at the time. In those days, the suggestion that a substantially new weapon could become part of the arsenal without previous testing would never have passed the “ho-ho” test.

Referring to his position on nuclear testing at the time that the Stockpile Stewardship program was first formulated in the early 90’s, Robinson said,

I will repeat only a few of the words that most of us with responsibilities for U.S. warheads said at the time—e.g. that “there is no precedent for such complex technological devices to be depended on unless they were periodically tested” and that “fielding of first-of-a-kind new devices without testing would be the most stressful challenge.”

Note the direct reference to a “first-of-a-kind” device here. The only such device anyone has seriously discussed building since the end of testing in 1992 is the RRW. Robinson goes on,

But in other areas we are just as uncertain today. My belief is that most weapons designers have less confidence about making changes to their designs than they had in the past. I particularly found the recent colloquy between the JASON group and the lab designers most curious —as they each speculated over the difficulties of fielding designs under the contemplated Reliable Replacement Weapon (RRW) effort. Although you will doubtless find a spectrum of views at the labs, my take is that uncertainties will necessarily (and quite naturally) grow over time for several of our systems.

Here again, although he speaks of other systems in general, Robinson specifically refers to the RRW as a system that it will be particularly problematic to introduce to the arsenal without testing. It is the only one he could be referring to when he cites the concerns of weapons designers about “making changes to their designs.” In spite of this, after an interesting bit on the genesis of the RRW concept, Robinson makes a remarkable intellectual double back flip a few sentences later:

After some discussion, the key idea of the RRW then emerged —that if we incorporated designs of “different genetic diversity” in each leg of the TRIAD, there would be a much lowered likelihood that all would fail at the same time from a common problem. Yet from what I’ve read, the Congressional support for the idea has been less than lukewarm —as evidenced by your canceling of the RRW funding, with some suggesting that the labs might be trying to “create new designs that would necessitate underground testing” in order to field the RRW. I assure you that this suggestion is just not true. RRW was conceived to lessen the likelihood that testing would be needed. At the very least I must conclude that “there has been a significant failure to communicate”, and I believe we must not let such misunderstandings perpetuate, when there is so much at stake.

This remarkable juxtaposition of the contradictory assertions that 1) new designs must be tested, but 2) the RRW will reduce the need for testing, is difficult to explain as other than a variant of Orwellian “doublethink” inspired by the need to stay “on message” on both the need to build the RRW and the necessity of resuming testing. In other words, Robinson and some of his fellow weaponeers at the National Labs want to have their cake and eat it too.

As is abundantly clear from Kyl’s article, there is no lack of people, both inside and outside the weapons labs, who want to resume nuclear testing. Trust me, if the RRW is built, it will result in a ratcheting up of the pressure to do so many fold. This is one of those rare instances when Congress actually got it right. Let’s forget about the RRW.

What, then, of the general assertion that testing is required because “concerns about aging and reliability have only grown?” In fact, if we stop hankering after the RRW and devote our attention to maintaining the weapons we already have, there is no credible reason to believe that they will not work as advertised. Let those who would maintain otherwise drop their vague assertions, put their cards on the table, and explain exactly what failure modes they are referring to. The weapons in our arsenal are robust, and any opponent who assumed otherwise would be making a very disastrous mistake.

Assuming, then, that we can really dismiss the negative political effects of resuming nuclear testing as Senator Kyl does with a cavalier wave of the hand, what would be the advantages of doing so? Surely, if we took the lead, the other nuclear powers would resume testing as well. The science of nuclear weapons has reached a high level of maturity in both the United States and Russia. It is much more likely that a resumption of testing will enable countries that have joined the nuclear club more recently to substantially improve their weapons designs than it will countries that have already developed highly sophisticated weapons. At the same time, it will negate the vast advantage we currently hold in possessing by far the most capable experimental facilities for validating nuclear weapons physics of any nation on earth. The experimental assets represented by Z facility at Sandia, the National Ignition Facility at Livermore, and a host of others give us a major leg up over the rest of the world in approaching the conditions that exist in nuclear weapons and investigating the relevant physics. When combined with our superiority in supercomputing power, they insure us a decisive advantage that it would be positively foolhardy for us to cast away with a resumption of testing.

Why then, the persistent pressure to resume testing? Once can only speculate. In Senator Kyl’s case, perhaps the increasing unsuitability of the Nevada Test Site as Las Vegas continues to sprawl in its direction may play a role. There are attractive alternative sites in his own state of Arizona that could potentially create many new jobs. As for the weapons designers, their lives were a lot more interesting during the era of nuclear testing. I suspect many of them would prefer a return to those “golden days of yesteryear” to their current role as custodians of an aging stockpile. These, however, are considerations that should not and cannot be allowed to play any role in our decision to resume testing or not.

Our weapons are reliable, and can be maintained with confidence. Let us preserve our advantage, and refrain from foolishly throwing it away with a resumption of nuclear testing.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

Leave a Reply