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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 17, July - August 1997

US Conducts Subcritical Nuclear Test

On 2 July, the US Department of Energy (DOE) conducted the first of an initial series of two 'subcritical' nuclear experiments at its Nevada test site. The experiments use plutonium but do not involve a nuclear explosion or release of fissile material, and thus comply with the terms set out in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) signed by the US in September 1996.

The stated objective of the experiments is to help maintain the safety and reliability of the US stockpile, and not to design or develop new weapons - see Documents and Sources for DOE background information. This official line is questioned by some States and groups. There is also a degree of Congressional opposition, with a 20 June letter to the President, questioning the stated rationale for the experiments, signed by 40 members of both Houses.

On the eve of the first experiment, the US non-governmental organisation (NGO) Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) lambasted the Clinton Administration. According to the group's Director of Security Programs, Robert W. Tiller (1 July):

"Since the United States is committed to ending nuclear testing, we do not need to do these subcritical tests. It is outrageous for the US to continue these needless and expensive tests at a time when we should be setting an example of disarmament." In the immediate aftermath of the experiment, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tang Guoquiang reacted warily, stating on 3 July: "We stress that all countries should faithfully abide by stipulations in the nuclear test ban treaty... We will certainly pay close attention to this situation..."

Unambiguous criticism of the development was voiced the same day by the Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (see Editor's note). Hiroshima's Mayor, Takashi Hiraoka, complained:

"The United States says it aims to secure the safety of nuclear weapons, but this represents their strong intention to continue possessing nuclear arms... We have a strong sense of crisis that this experiment may trigger a recurrence of a nuclear arms development race..."

The Mayor of Nagasaki, Itcho Ito, was equally angry: "Efforts of people concerned have been bearing fruit toward a nuclear test ban, but the experiment may make them meaningless."

Although India has refused to sign the CTBT, the government issued a statement on 5 July condemning the US action, arguing that it demonstrated the hollow nature of the accord:

"We are concerned that this has been justified as an activity permitted under the CTBT... It is a matter of regret that the CTBT contains loopholes which are exploited by some countries to continue their testing activity, using more sophisticated and advanced techniques. Such activity...demonstrates the nuclear-weapon States' continued reliance on nuclear weapons and their programme to further develop and refine nuclear weapons technology. ... [This] confirms the validity of India's concerns..."

On 19 July, Indonesia's Foreign Ministry issued a critical statement, arguing:

"Although the test is not covered by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty signed only last year, basically it contravenes the treaty's spirit and conscience..."

On 11 August, a lawsuit questioning the legality of the experiments, filed by Greenpeace and other NGOs was rejected by the US Federal District Court in Washington.

Editor's note: 6 & 9 August marked the 52nd anniversary of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Addressing a crowd of around 45,000 in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park, Mayor Hiraoka returned to his attack on current US policy:

"We demand efforts to establish a security system that does not depend on a nuclear umbrella... The stance that promises reductions in nuclear weapons on the one hand, and sticks to nuclear experiments on the other, lacks the wisdowm to realize the co-existence of human beings..."

Reports: Physicians Protest Plutonium Test Scheduled for 2 July, US Newswire, 1 July; Hiroshima, Nagasaki angry over US subcritical N-test, Kyodo News International News Wire, 2 July; Greenpeace appeals to Clinton, The Hindu, 2 July; China says keeping close eye on US nuclear tests, Reuters World Service, 3 July; India voices concern over US nuclear experiment, Agence France-Presse International News, 5 July; Indonesia concerned over US nuclear test, Xinhua English Language News Service, 18 July; Nuclear umbrella rapped in Hiroshima, Asahi Shimbun, 6 August; US court rejects suit against subcritical tests, Kyodo News International News Wire, 12 August.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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