On Wednesday, September 15, the United States Department of Energy conducted a subcritical nuclear experiment under the NNSS (Nevada National Security Site) facility in Nevada formerly known as the Nevada Test Site.
The subcritical test dubbed 'Bacchus' is the 24th such controversial subcritical nuclear experiment whereby plutonium is bombarded by conventional explosives, short of triggering a chain reaction that would create a nuclear bomb explosion.
Although the Department of Energy (DOE) conducts
many experiments using plutonium and other bomb-trigger materials, those are
generally called hydrodynamic tests and are different from subcritical
experiments. Why? Subcritical tests entail 'Goldie Locks' amounts of plutonium
- not too small to be a small physics-type experiment (hydrodynamic test) but
no too big such that the plutonium experiment will go critical and create a
nuclear explosion. However, the amounts of plutonium used in a subcritical test
can begin to fission, just like a nuclear bomb. One Cold War era subcritical test conducted
at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1963 slightly went critical,
bombarded the surroundings with nuclear radiation, although a runaway chain
reaction wasn't maintained.
Why does the DOE conduct subcritical tests? They say that they want to learn more about plutonium - how it acts, how it ages. And so bombarding with conventional explosives a similar but smaller weapons 'core' of plutonium (there are thousands of such cores in warheads in our nuclear stockpile) would teach them more about the physical conditions that fissile materials (i.e. plutonium) experience at the onset of a nuclear blast, they say. However, some scientists called this baloney. They note that plutonium's physical structure actually becomes more stable over time.
So, why REALLY is the DOE doing subcritical tests?
One reason is to prime and ready the test site. The most nuked place on Earth is the Nevada National Security Site (formerly Nevada Test Site). That area, which is home to 'Area 51' and 'Yucca Flat,' is the U.S. (and U.K.'s) primary nuclear proving grounds. It is still there to test our nukes because U.S. leaders won't surrender their rights to test nukes 'if they have to.' That is the only reason it is still open despite excuses that the area is 'useful' for other national security, firefighting, treaty verification purposes. The U.S. simply wants to retain the right to blow up nukes in Nevada when it wants to - even though it doesn't want the public to know this - and so it conducts these subcritical tests to keep the test site workforce employed, trained and primed in case a nuke test is needed in the future.
The first subcritical test was conducted by the U.S. in 1997 - just five short years after the U.S.'s very last nuclear test which was conducted underground also at the Nevada Test Site. The most recent subcritical test was in 2006, which was the same year that DOE was put to shame for its complicit role in attempting to irradiate Westerners with Divine Strake. The DOE is expected to give a 48 hour notice to the world community in advance of any full-scale subcritical test but it does not appear that this precedent was followed, and rather was completely disregarded, possibly because the DOE fears that the public would again kick their butt into not doing another test at the site. One Nevada activist group has indicated that they were on a list to get 48-hour notices but never received one.
The DOE's subcritical testing program, which is part of its Stockpile Stewardship program, is problematic because it is nearly impossible to know if any country has indeed conducted a zero-yield subcritical test or a very small yield nuclear blast. Why? Subcriticals are:
* conducted out of sight, so there would be no flash of light detectable via satellite imagery
* involve such small amounts of plutonium, so a tiny 'pop' would be too small to produce any seismic effect
* occur at deep depths, at about 1,000 feet underground, so radioactive hot gases would likely not reach the surface and wouldn't be picked up by the radiation monitoring network of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).
Forty four members of Congress stated in a letter to President Clinton in 1997 that the depth (below ground) where subcritical experiments are conducted would set 'a precedent for conducting underground nuclear tests that a test ban treaty violator would find useful. Because the CTBT is not yet ratified, there are no existing verification standards nor methods by which to determine whether a nuclear weapons experiment violates the CTBT or not. The U.S. is unwisely creating a testing norm under which other nations could justify conducting similar underground nuclear weapons experiments at their test sites. An even more dangerous consequence is that countries with nuclear capability, but lacking the sophisticated testing technology of the declared nuclear weapons states, could be provoked to resume full-scale underground testing.'
Subcritical tests are currently generating suspicion and distrust worldwide. In August 1997, after a full-testing ban was put into effect between the U.S. and Russia, a seismic event in Russia generated suspicion in the U.S. and around the globe that Russia conducted a nuclear test or critical-subcritical experiment! The U.S. Air Force later determined that the seismic event came from the ocean and was a small earthquake.
Each time the U.S. conducts a subcritical test, they fan the flames of fear in other countries, whose interpretation is that the U.S. is (still) testing and honing their nukes.
[See a sample of the website hits we are getting at Idealist.ws from China/Russia/etc.. here regarding Bacchus.]
Their logical conclusion is that until they become nuclear, militarily they are disadvantaged. What's to stop them from starting their own subcritical testing program now, or even when the CTBT, which won't ban subcritical tests, goes into effect? The same thing will happen. Suspicion of the deliberate conduct of, or a technical error that led to an accidental occurrence of, an underground nuclear test may force a resumption of underground nuclear testing by one country or a slew of countries. Note that the preparations as viewed by satellite for a subcritical test will end up looking exactly like the preparations for a full-scale underground nuclear test. This 'preparation' would create a global furor.
It is unlikely that the CTBT-in-force will change anything and remedy any of the problems the CTBT is designed to solve. The current not-in-force status of CTBT lacks any verification regime for these subcriticals. When in force, although any signatory can request that international monitors visit the country where a suspected test occurred, an on-site visit by international monitors may be too late by then (even if they can find the subcritical testing enclave to verify claims).
The CTBT is not comprehensive enough at preventing fear and distrust from spiraling towards a nuclear arms race.