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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 45, April 2000

US Announces Warhead Renovation Plan, Conducts Sub-Critical Tests

The US conducted two subcritical nuclear tests during the period under review: Oboe 4, on April 6, and Thoroughbred, on March 22. The tests, which do not involve a nuclear explosion, are criticised by a number of states and disarmament groups for violating the spirit of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The US has now conducted three such experiments this year at the Nevada test site, following Oboe 3 on February 3. Russia also regularly conducts subcritical tests at its Novaya Zemyla site.

On March 26, the Washington Post reported details of a US plan to 'refurbish' over 6,000 aging nuclear warheads over the next 15 years. The reported intent of the plan is to maintain an 'inactive reserve' of 2,500-3,000 as a hedge against the collapse of arms control relationship with Russia or the effects of nuclear proliferation or build-up elsewhere. According to Michael Krepon, President of the Henry L. Stimson Center, quoted in the Post article, there is another reason - the Pentagon's nuclear warfighting plans. The Defense Department, according to Krepon, "has simply downsized the active requirement and put half of what they say they need on the shelf. But the war plan requirement for 6,000 detonations has never changed." According to Janne Nolan, former senior US arms control official, also quoted in the article, the refurbishment programme has the potential to undermine or subvert the arms control objectives of the Clinton Administration itself: "While the President is talking about the dangers of nuclear weapons, technicians at the national laboratories are working to refurbish a stockpile the size of which is unaffected by any agreement or treaty…"

On April 14, US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and Defense Secretary William Cohen formally informed President Clinton that they had certified the US nuclear stockpile as safe and reliable, and thus requiring no return to underground testing. In a joint press release, Richardson stated: "What's at stake here is the operational readiness of the nation's nuclear arsenal and our ability to maintain that readiness without the need for underground testing." Cohen added: "The annual stockpile certification is one of the most important activities we conduct each year… I have confidence in the ability of both Departments to continue to work together to maintain the stockpile."

Reports: 'Thoroughbred' subcritical nuke test in US on eve of NPT Review, Australian Peace Committee/Friends of the Earth Press Release, March 23; US plan to renovate warheads stirs opposition, Washington Post, March 26; US plans to refurbish warheads under fire - report, Reuters, March 26; Oboe-4 subcritical, Alliance of Atomic Veterans, April 6; Secretaries of Energy and Defense again certify nuclear stockpile without nuclear testing, US Department of Energy Press Release R-00-105, April 14.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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