Do We Really Need New Nukes?

If an article that just appeared in the LA Times is any indication, the agitation for jump-starting the nuclear weapons program at the Department of Energy (DOE) and the three nuclear weapons laboratories (Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia National Laboratories) continues unabated. Entitled “New nuclear weapons needed, many experts say, pointing to aged arsenal,” it cites all the usual talking points of the weaponeers. For example,

Warheads in the nation’s stockpile are an average of 27 years old, which raises serious concerns about their reliability, they say. Provocative nuclear threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin have added to the pressure to not only design new weapons but conduct underground tests for the first time since 1992.

“It seems like common sense to me if you’re trying to keep an aging machine alive that’s well past its design life, then you’re treading on thin ice,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman-elect of the House Armed Services Committee. “Not to mention, we’re spending more and more to keep these things going.”

Thornbury also offered support for renewed testing, saying, “You don’t know how a car performs unless you turn the key over. Why would we accept anything less from a weapon that provides the foundation for which all our national security is based on?”

Such comments are entirely typical. They would make a lot of sense if the U.S. nuclear weapons program existed in a vacuum. However, it doesn’t. It exists in a world with several other major nuclear powers, and they all have the same problems. Under the circumstances, the fact that such problems exist and are shared by all the nuclear powers is less significant than the question of which nuclear power is best equipped to deal with them. The question of who will benefit by the building of new weapons and a resumption of nuclear testing depends on the answer to that question. If one country has a significant advantage over its rivals in dealing with a common problem as long as the status quo is maintained, then it would be very ill-advised to initiate a change to the status quo that would allow them to catch up.  At the moment, the United States is the country with an advantage. As noted in the article,

The U.S. has by far the greatest archive of test data, having conducted 1,032 nuclear tests. Russia conducted 715 and China only 45.

Beyond that, we have the ability to conduct tests with conventional explosives that mimic what goes on in the initial stages of a nuclear explosion, and superb diagnostics to extract a maximum of data from those tests. Perhaps more importantly, we have an unrivaled above ground experimental, or AGEX, capability. I refer to machines like Z at Sandia National Laboratories, or the NIF at Livermore, which are far more capable and powerful than similar facilities anywhere else in the world. Those who say they can’t access physical conditions relevant to those that occur in exploding nuclear weapons, or that they are useless for weapon effects or weapon physics experiments, either don’t know what they’re talking about or are attempting to deceive.

As far as the NIF is concerned, it is quite true that it has so far failed to achieve its fusion ignition milestone, but that by no means rules out the possibility that it ever will. More importantly, the NIF will remain a highly useful AGEX facility whether it achieves ignition or not. Indeed, before it was built, many of the weapons designers showed little interest in ignition. It would merely “muddy the waters,” making it more difficult for the diagnostics to precisely record the results of an experiment. The NIF could access weapons-relevant conditions without it. In fact, in spite of its failure to achieve ignition to date, the NIF has been a spectacular success as far as achieving its specifications are concerned. It is more than an order of magnitude more powerful than any previously existing laser system, its 192 laser beams are highly accurate, and its diagnostic suite is superb.

Another problem with the resumption of testing is that it will lead to the development of weapons that are much more likely to be used. Once the nuclear genie is out of the bottle, it will likely prove very difficult to put it back in. For example, again quoting the article,

John S. Foster Jr., former director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and chief of Pentagon research during the Cold War, said the labs should design, develop and build prototype weapons that may be needed by the military in the future, including a very low-yield nuclear weapon that could be used with precision delivery systems, an electromagnetic pulse weapon that could destroy an enemy’s communications systems and a penetrating weapon to destroy deeply buried targets.

The commonly heard narrative at DOE goes something like this: “We need to develop small, precise, penetrating nuclear weapons because they will be a much better deterrent than the existing ones. Potential enemies are unlikely to believe that we would ever use one of the high yield weapons that are all that remain in the current arsenal. They would be far more likely to believe that we might use a small bunker buster that would minimize the possibility of significant collateral damage.” The problem with that narrative is that it’s true. We would be far more likely to use such a weapon than the ones in the current arsenal, and there would be no lack of voices within DOE and DoD calling for its use if an appropriate opportunity ever arose.

I can understand the agitation for a resumption of testing. It’s a lot sexier to make things that go boom than to serve as custodians for an aging pile of existing nukes. Unfortunately, the latter course is the wiser one. By resuming nuclear testing we would really be unilaterally surrendering a huge advantage, playing into the hands of our enemies and destabilizing the nuclear landscape at the same time.

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.

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