The United States and Israel have threatened war against Iran if it crosses some “red line” in nuclear capability, yet these two nuclear-armed states are rarely criticized for their own nuke arsenals. A recent U.S. nuclear weapons test attracted almost no public attention, notes William Boardman.
By William Boardman
When the United States conducted a non-explosive nuclear weapons test in Nevada in early December, there was little public fanfare, less national media coverage, and only a smattering of international protests suggesting the test violated the spirit of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, if not the letter. The Treaty bans “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion.”
President Bill Clinton signed the treaty in 1996, but Congress has consistently refused to ratify it, and explicitly voted it down in 1999. In April 2009, in Prague, President Barack Obamapromised serious effort on reducing the nuclear danger:
“To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. (Applause.) After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.
“And to cut off the building blocks needed for a bomb, the United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons. If we are serious about stopping the spread of these weapons, then we should put an end to the dedicated production of weapons-grade materials that create them. That’s the first step.”
On Dec. 5, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), part of the U.S. Department of Energy, carried out a “subcritical experiment” code-named Pollux that used non-nuclear explosives to test the ongoing “safety and effectiveness of the nation’s nuclear weapons,” according to the agency.
Subcritical Tests Not Nuclear Explosions
NNSA conducted Pollux, its 27th subcritical explosion test, at its Nevada National Security Site near Las Vegas, Nevada. The most recent, previous subcritical test in this series, code-named Bartolo B, took place Feb. 2, 2011, said an NNSA press release, further explaining that:
“Subcritical experiments examine the behavior of plutonium as it is strongly shocked by forces produced by chemical high explosives. Subcritical experiments produce essential scientific data and technical information used to help maintain the safety and effectiveness of the nuclear weapons stockpile. The experiments are subcritical; that is, no critical mass is formed and no self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction can occur; thus, there is no nuclear explosion.”
However, a formal objection to the NNSA nuclear weapons test came from the Japan Council Against A & H Bombs (Gensuikyo), which sent a note of protest directly to President Obama, saying:
“Whether it involves an explosion or not, nuclear testing runs counter to the spirit of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the agreement of achieving the “peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” reached by the 2010 NPT [Nuclear Proliferation Treaty] Review Conference.
“Your administration seeks non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. But your position of urging most others to renounce nuclear weapons, while continuing your own nuclear tests, does not stand by reason nor is it supported by the world public.
“In the name of the A-bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and on behalf of the people of Japan, the only A-bombed country, we call on you to cancel all plans of nuclear testing and make a sincere effort to achieve a total ban on nuclear weapons and a world without nuclear weapons.”
The White House has apparently not yet responded.
On Dec. 5, Gensuikyo wrote the Government of North Korea, urging it to cancel its planned launch of a satellite rocket. North Korea conducted the most recent known nuclear test explosion on May 5, 2009.
Only Iran Joined in Protest
Iran’s foreign ministry also issued a statement of protest against the U.S. test, blaming the U.S. for “inattention to full disarmament which is a deep-seated demand of international public opinion.”
The Iranian government also pointed out that one of the country’s leaders, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared in a fatwa in 2005 that nuclear weapons are against the principles of Islam, adding that Iran “will pursue the supreme leader’s fatwa regarding the prohibition of production, storage or use of such weapons until it has been fully realized.”
Iranian political scientist Kaveh Afrasiabi pointed out, in a half-hour interview on Iranian Press TV English-language news, that “this could be a cover for computer simulations for advancing new nuclear warheads. We don’t know that because the U.S. program is shrouded in high secrecy.”
Iranian Press TV also reported that the mayor of Hiroshima had also condemned the American subcritical explosion test.
The White House has apparently not yet responded to Iranian comments. The Obama administration is on record favoring restraints on nuclear weapons and has taken leadership in helping to control weapons-grade uranium, plutonium and other fissile nuclear materials around the world.
The administration has also increased U.S. budgets for nuclear weapons maintenance and delivery systems, as well as overall military spending.
A Moribund Issue in U.S.?
Last October, NNSA administrator Thomas D’Agostino published a letter in the New York Times defending his agency’s work on nuclear weapons against criticism in one of the paper’s editorials:
“Last month we marked 20 years since the United States last conducted an underground nuclear test. The National Ignition Facility is an investment in the future, one where we never again have to perform explosive testing on nuclear weapons, one where we have a greater scientific understanding of fusion and one where the president has no doubt that our nuclear weapons will work when needed.
“The consistent support the facility has seen from the Obama administration and Congress represents a shared belief in that vision for the future. To abandon it now after only a few years of effort, even while the facility is already paying dividends, would be an irresponsible disservice to national security and scientific discovery.”
NNSA has 93 videos posted on YouTube, including a 30-second clip of the Pollux experiment that shows a containment vessel in which a very brief explosion occurs out of sight.
The agency also maintains a presence on its blog, as well as on Facebook (“NNSA is responsible for the management and security of the nation’s nuclear weapons, nuclear nonproliferation, and naval reactor programs. It also responds to nuclear and radiological emergencies in the United States and abroad,” Twitter (“Pantexans assist in gathering food for families @PantexPlant”), Tumblr (“Supercomputer simulations of blast waves on the brain are being compared with clinical studies of veterans suffering from mild traumatic brain injuries”), and Flickr.
According to its website, NNSA has about 3,000 employees and more than 30,000 contractors. NNSA has asked for a 4.9 percent budget increase, to a total of $11.5 billion for fiscal year 2013. Although the agency’s mission is primarily military, its expenditures are not counted as part of the defense budget:
“Established by Congress in 2000, NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy responsible for enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science. NNSA maintains and enhances the safety, security, reliability and performance of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear testing; works to reduce global danger from weapons of mass destruction; provides the U.S. Navy with safe and effective nuclear propulsion; and responds to nuclear and radiological emergencies in the U.S. and abroad.”
William Boardman lives in Vermont, where he has produced political satire for public radio and served as a lay judge.