APS News

Stockpile Stewardship, Non-Proliferation Policies Pose Challenges to Nuclear Weapons Labs

Nuclear weapons scientists in the U.S. face a unique technical challenge in supporting twin national policy objectives: to enhance nonproliferation goals and global security through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and a negotiated Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), while maintaining the safety and reliability of a smaller deterrent force without nuclear testing or new weapons types. Speakers at a Saturday morning session of the 1996 Joint APS/AAPT Meeting discussed some of the issues surrounding stockpile stewardship, as well as the likelihood of CTBT approval in Geneva this year.

The NPT was extended indefinitely one year ago. This treaty, signed in 1970, calls in part on Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) to work towards the disarmament of their existing nuclear weapons. Critics of this indefinite extension feel that the NWS will not be under regular pressure to do so by all the NPT signatories if there is no regular reassessment of the status of disarmament. Peter Pella, a former William Foster Fellow who worked with the Arms Control Disarmament Agency on the NPT, maintained that countries will pursue nuclear disarmament as a goal only if they feel it is in their national interests to do so, and that the permanence of NPT along with other measures will enhance security and speed up the disarmament process.

A comprehensive ban on nuclear explosive testing has been the quest of scientists and statement for more than 40 years, according to John D. Holum, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. The Conference on Disarmament in Geneva is close to reaching this goal, and the U.N. General Assembly hopes to open the treaty for signature before the 51st General Assembly convenes in September. A major obstacle to be overcome is China's reluctance to move ahead, particularly its insistence on the right to conduct peaceful nuclear explosions, which Holum described as "the atomic equivalent of a friendly punch in the nose."

Many have characterized the CTBT chiefly as a nonproliferation measure, but Holum believes its great practical impact will also be for arms control - to end development of advanced new nuclear weapons and keep new military applications from emerging. "By fending off such developments, the CTBT will help make nuclear war less likely, and sustain today's trend toward smaller nuclear arsenals with shrinking roles in national defenses," he said.

Last October, President Clinton directed the DOE weapons laboratories to maintain scientific capabilities adequate to maintain the U.S. stockpile, building on his 1993 decision to develop "stockpile stewardship" without nuclear testing. Stockpile stewardship can help assure the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, according to John Immele, director of the nuclear weapons technology program at Los Alamos National Laboratory. However, global attention to the control of nuclear materials, including reactor-grade plutonium, and some cooperation among the nuclear states in crafting post-Cold War security regime are also essential to reducing the nuclear danger.

A science-based program of evaluation, assessment and expert judgment is a primary requirement for the U.S. to enter safely into a test ban treaty. "For the first time in history, because of advances in science and technology, including computing and experimental simulation, the underpinnings needed for stockpile safety and reliability under a comprehensive test ban treaty may have finally come within reach," said Immele. "Although the task is difficult and some risks exist, science-based stewardship of the nation's remaining nuclear weapons is now feasible in an environment of no testing and no new weapons."

Immele believes that effective stewardship programs will require several complementary efforts at the national laboratories, including advances in high-performance computing; enhanced surveillance to predict aging and other defects; improved non-nuclear testing with high explosives; archiving of past design, testing and materials data; and scheduled revalidation and life-extension for the seven basic weapon designs in the continuing U.S. stockpile.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin