The Bridge: Going Nuclear

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Playing with fire, literally

This year, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the branch of the Department of Energy tasked with overseeing nuclear weaponry, received a record budget of $22.3 billion. It’s the largest budget in the administration’s history, and the NNSA is using the funds to give the American nuclear stockpile the biggest overhaul it’s had in decades. Over the years, our government has spent billions refurbishing existing warheads, and there is no real need for any new ones. But part of the budget is now going toward the development of a brand-new nuclear weapon, the submarine-launched W93.

The budget is also funding the development of plutonium pit building capacity (making the explosive cores of nuclear bombs), with the hope of cranking out 80 new pits per year by 2030. This gargantuan task is pushing NNSA labs to revitalize their rate of production. The last time plutonium pits were produced at this rate, the government was still conducting explosive nuclear tests.

The federal government hasn’t built a new warhead since the end of the Cold War and hasn’t conducted an explosive nuclear test since 1992. So the mass production of plutonium pits is ominous — let’s get into why.

In this edition:

  • Nuclear testing, then and now
  • A dangerous domino effect
  • Winning a losing game

The NNSA has positioned the plutonium pits project as a modernization effort, necessary for extending the life of the nearly 4,000 “active” nuclear warheads in our stockpile. But studies have verified the integrity of our current pits, suggesting that we don’t really need new ones.

My colleague, Geoff Wilson, director of POGO’s Center for Defense Information, thinks the so-called modernization effort may be ushering us into a new era of nuclear testing, which would be a danger to the whole world. I talked to Geoff about the domino effect he worries could play out.

But first, some context

You might be wondering, as I did, how this is even allowed. I was under the impression that nuclear testing and proliferation were banned long ago.

But the global effort to curb nuclear weaponry is complicated due to inconsistencies in and resistance to adoption of treaties and agreements. For example, though nuclear testing was banned in 1963 with the Partial Test Ban Treaty, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the heavy hitters actually conducted their last explosive nuclear tests. There’s also a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that would ban testing altogether. The U.S. has signed onto it, but failed to ratify. And though there is a global Non-Proliferation Treaty, it hasn’t completely prevented new nuclear weapons from coming into existence — hence, the W93. (To its due credit, the Non-Proliferation Treaty has significantly slowed development and reduced the worldwide nuclear arsenal. The global inventory is now down to around 12,500 warheads from a peak of over 70,000 in 1986.)

Stacked stockpile 

Explosive nuclear testing may be partially banned, but nuclear testing does still happen, albeit it looks quite different now. Today, testing is conducted in virtual and simulated environments in NNSA labs across the country, with the primary goal of certifying and modernizing the existing stockpile. “Since we have detonated more nukes than everybody else in testing, we have great reliability in our nuclear arsenal. We know that these weapons work,” Geoff told me.

But a new weapon opens a wholeother can of worms. The W93 would be the first entirely new design in 30 years. There’s a clear and apparent danger in building something totally novel and assuming its functionality on conjecture alone. Though scientists are confident enough in their simulating and computing programs to forego testing, Geoff’s not so sure.

“Once you get far enough down this road of building new warheads, at a certain point somebody is going to say, ‘Hey, if we’re really going to trust these things for our nuclear deterrence, they’re going to need to be tested,’” he said.

Leading by example 

Geoff’s concerned that the mass production of the plutonium pits foreshadows a revival of bomb tests — which would inevitably have terrible humanitarian and environmental consequences. (The country is still reeling from the horrendous (and unresolved) legacy of testing in the American Southwest.) Not only that, but it could lead others to follow our example.

“As the world’s oldest, strongest nuclear superpower, America is supposed to be the adult in the room,” Geoff told me. “If it decides to start nuclear testing again, where does that lead us?

A domino effect is inherent to the theory of deterrence. When it comes to nuclear weapons, how you posture yourself is equally, if not more, significant than what you actually do. Seventy-eight years ago, the very first atomic test catalyzed a global arms race. Geoff is certain that if our government resumed nuclear testing, it would open the floodgates for the rest of the world to begin nuclear testing again, too.

“And that’s something no one, not one of us, should want,” Geoff pled.

Harsh reality

The simple truth is that when it comes to nuclear weapons, even if we’re winning the (arms) race, we’re losing the game. A single detonated nuclear weapon does catastrophic damage to human life. Just having them around is a danger.

Together, the U.S. and Russia account for around 90% of the world’s nuclear stockpile. With those kinds of numbers in our favor (and an annually certified, recently refurbished, and fully capable nuclear arsenal at our disposal) there’s no realistic need for 80 new plutonium pits per year or a new and destabilizing nuclear warhead. Why add to the stockpile when we already have enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the world, many times over?

“The truth is that these weapons are unusable if we care at all about preserving humanity. And we already have a strong, capable, and reliable deterrent. So why funnel more money into weapons that might actually weaken our security, when there are higher spending priorities, including higher defense spending priorities?” Geoff asked.

Nuclear weapons are a losing game (at least, for most of us). It’s crucial that we seriously, gravely question where this kind of escalation can take us.