According to an article entitled In Alarming New Study, Nuclear Lab Scientists Question U.S. Weapons’ Performance that recently appeared in Investor’s Business Daily, a couple of Los Alamos scientists have released a report questioning the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and calling for a resumption of nuclear testing. It would be a bad idea. Let me explain why.
The two scientists claim that the reliability of the aging weapons in our arsenal will become increasingly questionable as the number of years since their “best if used by” date increases. They base their argument largely on uncertainties about whether computer codes will be able to accurately predict the performance of these aging weapons. It’s true that computer codes have not always been perfectly accurate in predicting the outcome of complex physical processes. However, the significance of that fact must be weighed in the context of how it affects all the nuclear powers, not just the United States. In the absence of nuclear testing, we all have the same problem. The relevant question, then, is not whether the problem exists, but how severely it impacts us compared to the other nuclear states. We have conducted more nuclear tests than any other country, and therefore have a much larger database than our competitors with which to compare code predictions. When it comes to computer codes, that gives us a very significant advantage as long as the moratorium on testing continues. That advantage will become a great deal less significant if testing is resumed.
However, computer codes are not the only means we have of assessing the reliability of the weapons in our arsenal. The U.S. also has an unmatched advantage in terms of experimental facilities that are able to access physical conditions relevant to those that occur in nuclear weapons. For example, these include the Z machine at Sandia National Laboratories, which is capable of producing a far more powerful burst of x-rays in the laboratory than any competitor, and the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which can dump a huge amount of energy in a tiny target in a very short time. Such facilities can access extreme material densities and temperatures, enabling a host of experiments in weapon physics and weapon effects that are currently beyond the capabilities of any other country. If we resume testing we will be throwing this advantage out the window as well. In short, we may have our problems when it comes to assessing the reliability of the weapons in our arsenal, but the problems faced by our potential competitors are even worse. Under the circumstances, it makes little sense to do something as destabilizing as rocking the nuclear boat.
If we are really worried about the reliability of our arsenal, we should seriously consider adding another experimental facility to go along with Z, NIF, and the rest. I refer to what is known as an Advanced Hydrodynamic Facility, or AHF. We seriously considered building such a facility back in the late 90’s, but have pretty much forgotten about it since then. Basically, the AHF would be a very powerful particle accelerator, capable of delivering beams of energy so penetrating that they could image the critical, high-explosive driven implosion process in nuclear weapons in its entirety in three dimensions. Obviously, it would be necessary to replace the nuclear materials used in real weapons with suitable surrogates, but this would introduce very little uncertainly in the experimental results. An AHF would not only add to our existing advantage over other nuclear states as long as the test moratorium continues, but would effectively lay to rest any remaining uncertainties not resolved by the computer codes and experimental facilities we already have.
I can understand the eagerness of weapon scientists to resume nuclear testing. It would make their lives a lot more interesting. However, it would hardly be to the advantage of the rest of us. I suggest that, instead of unilaterally taking such a foolhardy step, we maintain and expand the advantage we already have and will continue to enjoy as long as the test moratorium continues.