The Scientific Activist

The Purpose of Nuclear Test Bans

Since I recently wrote about nuclear disarmament, I thought a story from this week’s issue of Nature would be especially relevant. In a news piece and accompanying editorial, Nature discusses the ongoing question of how the US is going to maintain its nuclear arsenal, considering its voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing. The news article lays out the issue:

Harnessing the power of supercomputers such as Purple and data from past tests, US weaponeers are working feverishly on an ambitious programme to design a new nuclear warhead that they can certify will work — even without a test explosion. They claim that the new weapon will replace the ageing warheads in the US nuclear stockpile; that it will be safer and more reliable than existing designs; and that it will be easier to build and cheaper to maintain. Some designers informally call it the ‘wooden bomb’, because theoretically it will be able to sit on the shelf for years with little maintenance. Formally, the new weapon is known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead, or RRW….

Despite the criticism, the programme is quietly gaining political momentum. Congressional appropriators, who killed earlier design programmes, gave the RRW project a respectable $25 million last year. If the programme continues on target, the warhead could enter military service in the next decade.

The debate over the RRW has its roots in the 1992 testing ban, instituted by the former President George Bush as the first step towards signing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. The United States never ratified the treaty, but the government has maintained its voluntary moratorium on testing….

“The test ban symbolizes that the nuclear arms race is over,” says Robert Nelson, a physicist and arms-control expert at Princeton University in New Jersey. As long as the United States doesn’t test, he says, other nations –including nuclear upstarts such as India and Pakistan — feel enormous pressure to follow suit. And the ban gives the United States a huge advantage over other established nuclear nations, because it already has data from 1,054 nuclear tests. China, by comparison, has conducted only 45.

Although the news article doesn’t touch on the subject, the editorial at least asks the underlying question of what this is all for:

During the cold war, the warheads were supposed to deter either a conventional military attack or a nuclear first strike by the opposing side. Under the cheerfully and accurately named paradigm of mutually assured destruction, or MAD, they were made ready for use in large-scale retaliation, to annihilate cities and nations.

That era is, mercifully, behind us. Now the five main nuclear powers all wish to maintain their ageing stockpiles, while offering confused messages about what they are for, and how many are needed….

It is past time for these governments to re-examine what their nuclear-weapons research and development capability, as well as their weapons stockpiles, are actually for. Once they’ve figured that out, it may even be possible for them to manage their arsenals in ways marginally saner than those necessitated by the cold war.

The Nature editorial begins to address the deeper issues, but it never quite follows through. It’s true that limiting nuclear testing is alone a means in itself, and back in the 1950s and 60s, Linus Pauling and others demonstrated the public health implications of such actions. However, the fundamental purpose of the various Nuclear Test Ban Treaties was to encourage nuclear disarmament, in hopes of opening the door to a more peaceful and reasonable society.

Measures that can sidestep this goal and allow the further development of nuclear arsenals within the letter, if not the intention, of these treaties should be looked upon with particular skepticism and scrutiny.