In a barren stretch of Nevada desert 85 miles northwest of Las Vegas, a large modular tower and a steel crane, once used for testing nuclear bombs, stand in plain view of anyone passing through the area known to the U.S. government as U6c. They are easily detected by satellites orbiting overhead. Later this year, scientists at the Nevada Test Site will use the structures to conduct an experiment called Unicorn, which will help determine whether the site is prepared to resume full-scale nuclear tests if ordered to do so by the president. Unicorn, which works with plutonium and high explosives, will resemble an old-fashioned underground nuclear test from the Cold War era, when bombs were placed in towers aboveground and lowered beneath the surface by custom-built cranes.
In recent weeks, the Bush administration has focused the world's attention on stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons. During his trip to Europe in February, President Bush spoke with urgency about shutting down Iran's nuclear program and securing Russia's aging post-Soviet stockpile. North Korea's declaration last month that it already possesses a handful of nuclear warheads has raised new concerns about tensions in Asia. And most security experts agree that nonproliferation is now critical to stopping the worst nightmare scenario: A terrorist attack on a major city using radioactive material.
Nuclear watchdogs in this country, however, warn that the Bush administration is fueling a new arms race. They contend the government is violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the 1970 international agreement that states that countries with nuclear weapons must work toward disarmament. The Bush administration, they charge, is pouring money into new nuclear weapons programs and performing nuclear tests, spurring other nations to do the same.
The public "is in the dark about the intentions of this administration in terms of nuclear policy," says Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., who is an active proponent of nuclear disarmament. "I think they would be more than happy to go back to full-scale testing. At a time when weapons of mass destruction are in the forefront of everyone's mind, this administration has not made the security and dismantlement of weapons, nor the retention of know-how by friendly states, a priority."
Currently, the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the Nevada Test Site and is overseen by the Department of Energy, assumes the bulk of the nation's nuclear responsibility. Scientists at the Nevada site work in tandem with those at the country's major nuclear labs: Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia.
Nevada Test Site spokesman Kevin Rohrer says the security administration, which was established in 2000 on the heels of the Wen Ho Lee debacle (the Los Alamos computer scientist charged with mishandling classified information), is following the decree of the Stockpile Stewardship Program. Established in 1994, the program is designed to ensure the safety and readiness of the nation's aging nukes. The United States possesses about 10,000 nuclear weapons.
"Our job is to help make sure that the existing weapons in the stockpile are going to function as designed and remain safe in the stockpile," Rohrer says. The program, he explains, is focused on science and involves only non-nuclear experiments. "We are looking at nuclear material from a physics study perspective: What are the physical material properties of it? What makes plutonium act the way it does, as opposed to studying the phenomena of how do we develop a bomb?"
Walter Dekin, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's test director in Nevada, says the experiments at the site are harmless. "It's taking that 1968 Mustang that you parked in the garage and you've never been able to start," he says. "You've never done anything to it, other than you lift the hood, you look at it, you change the spark plugs, you change the oil, but you never run the engine. But when you want to, it's going to start and run just the way you said it would."
Many of the important tests at the Nevada site, including the one named Unicorn, are called "subcritical experiments." In a "subcrit" experiment, plutonium, the explosive ingredient in a nuclear weapon, is detonated with high explosives so scientists can observe how the materials interact and respond to the blast. The experiments take place in the U1a Complex at the site, an underground laboratory composed of roughly a mile of mined tunnels first excavated during the 1960s. In 1997, "Rebound," the first subcrit, was conducted in a 10-by-15-by-30-foot room. Once the scientists capture the blast data with multibillion-dollar, state-of-the-art supercomputers, they seal the radioactive experiment in layers of concrete 960 feet underground, presumably for all eternity.
"Subcritical" refers to the fact that the tests do not reach "criticality"; that is, they don't sustain a nuclear chain reaction, the perpetual explosion of energy that unleashes radioactive destruction. For that reason, subcrits are not banned under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the international agreement that President Clinton signed in 1996. The treaty forbids any nuclear test explosions that cause a chain reaction -- as well as the improvement and development of nuclear weapons.
The Clinton administration began conducting subcritical experiments in 1997, five years after President George H.W. Bush placed a moratorium on all nuclear testing. Although opposed to nuclear testing, Clinton authorized the United States to conduct subcrits as a way to appease pro-nuclear Congress members. At the time, Congress had not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and Clinton figured he could bargain for their votes with the tests.
In 1999, he urged the Senate to ratify the treaty. "Our experts have concluded that we don't need more tests to keep our own nuclear forces strong," he said. "We stopped testing in 1992, and now we are spending $4.5 billion a year to maintain a reliable nuclear force without testing. Since we don't need nuclear tests, it is strongly in our interest to achieve agreement that can help prevent other countries like India, Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran and others from testing and deploying nuclear weapons."
The United States has still not ratified the treaty. And the current activity in the Nevada desert is no aberration of Bush policy: U.S. nuclear labs continue to receive funding -- now approximately $8 billion a year -- for nuclear weapons research, development and testing activities. Among the recent developments is the Nevada Test Site's $100 million Device Assembly Facility, which was designed and built during the days of underground nuclear tests but wasn't functional before the 1992 moratorium. The facility is where plutonium is prepared for use in subcritical experiments, including Unicorn.
Another new device is a "pulsed-power" machine called Atlas, which Joe Meachum, an engineer at the Nevada Test Site, calls "the biggest in the world in its class." Atlas, which will pulverize tuna-can-size, non-nuclear materials like aluminum, copper and tin more quickly and powerfully than any mechanism in the world, was built at Los Alamos, dismantled, then moved to Nevada in 2003. Meachum expects to conduct Atlas' first test at its newly built custom facility in April. Whether testing with Atlas will involve nuclear materials remains to be seen, although Donald Bourcier, an engineer at Los Alamos, says it has been discussed.
"We're not looking at that right now," Bourcier says, "but there's been talk in the hallways of maybe sometime in the future."
Watchdogs charge that these innovations skirt international law. Jackie Cabasso, executive director of the Western States Legal Foundation, a monitor of U.S. nuclear policy, says that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty requires the United States to end the nuclear arms race at an early date and negotiate the elimination of its nuclear arsenal in good faith. "One could make a very persuasive argument that conducting subcritical tests as part of a broader program to maintain and improve the United States' nuclear weapons capabilities, and train a new generation of nuclear weapons designers, violates Article VI of the treaty," she says.
Mark Twain once opined that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. When it comes to nukes, one person's subcritical experiment is another's nuclear test.
Bob Peurifoy, an engineer for 39 years at New Mexico's Sandia National Laboratory before retiring in 1991, says that subcrits "are perhaps not necessary but are highly desirable" for maintaining the stockpile. Because they can't reach criticality, he says, "these experiments could be conducted in the open air, except for the fear of spreading plutonium around."
To Alice Slater, president of the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, which works to rid the world of nuclear weapons, subcrits definitely qualify as nuclear tests. "What they're doing is blowing up plutonium with high-explosive chemicals in tunnels 1,000 feet below the desert floor," she says. "The tunnels are contaminated with the plutonium and chemicals from the explosion -- it's radioactive, even if there isn't a 'critical' mushroom cloud."
Critics charge that subcrits drive the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world by provoking countries to keep up with the United States. "Subcritical experiments probably encourage Russia and China to do the same," says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. "They don't set the best example."
Slater points to the Commission on Disarmament talks in Geneva in 1998, when India protested the United States' conducting of subcrits and threatened not to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The U.S. response amounted to "screw India," says Slater, which prompted India to conduct its own test. That pattern continues today. In November, President Bush's friend and ostensible ally in the war against terrorism, Russian President Vladimir Putin, boasted about his nation's plans for a new kind of nuclear missile. "They will be developments of the kind that other nuclear powers do not and will not have," Putin said at a meeting of the Armed Forces leadership, according to the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass.
"We're driving it," Slater says. "We started to do subcriticals, and then Russia started to test them. They do every bad thing we do."
In the United States, Cabasso argues that the Bush administration appears to be using the subcrits as "a practice run" in preparation for the resumption of full-scale underground tests. Adds Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico: "The boys in the nuclear weapons complex have never wanted to let go of testing." He acknowledges that in 2004, President Bush ordered the country's nuclear weapons to be cut from 10,000 to 6,000 during the next decade. "They're plenty prepared to talk about the arsenal going down in numbers, even radically so," Coghlan says. "But there is deep cultural and even personal resistance to letting go of full-scale testing."
"What would they have us do?" asks Bourcier, the Los Alamos engineer, of the antinuclear establishment. "Let the stockpiles deteriorate in the bunkers? And if we get attacked, we're defenseless. There are still enemies out there."
The Bush administration has vigorously opposed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, deeming it ineffective and counter to U.S. security interests. Bush officials regularly point back to the imperative of stockpile maintenance -- but the administration's nuclear posture has in fact been much more forward leaning. In September 2002, it announced a "preemptive strike policy" for its National Security Strategy -- including first use of nuclear weapons against the chemical and biological facilities of states deemed to pose a threat to the United States. In February of this year Bush's new energy secretary, Samuel Bodman, remarked, "A near halt in nuclear weapons modernization over the past decade has taken a toll on our ability to be responsive to changing defense needs." And Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has repeatedly pledged his support for "efforts to revitalize the nuclear weapons infrastructure," including completing the "study" of the new class of so-called bunker-buster weapons.
So far, Congress has kept the Bush administration's nuclear ambitions in check. In November, it denied the president the $27.6 million he wanted for continued research on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, or "bunker buster" bombs, and refused Bush's $9 million funding request for "Advanced Concepts" -- research on new weapons designs, which Tauscher calls "one of those terms that means nothing but everything."
But the president remains undaunted. In the 2006 budget submitted to Congress in January, the administration renewed its request for $8.5 million toward "bunker buster" bombs, part of a $6.6 billion overall price tag for weapons programs. The Pentagon stands to get the most funding, with Bush's requesting an increase in its budget of $19 billion to $419 billion. And, with the passage in December of the Intelligence and Terrorism Prevention Act, Rumsfeld -- a staunch advocate of "bunker busters" -- has greater means to implement the programs of his choice.
Some conservative policymakers argue nuclear weapons remain a key deterrent to U.S. enemies, that the strategy that won the Cold War is also necessary -- albeit with a modern makeover -- to winning the war on terrorism.
"Without realistic testing ... we are unable to introduce new designs that would be better suited to countering threats posed by countries like Iran and North Korea than the hugely destructive weapons developed more than 20 years ago to counter targets in the Soviet Union," Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, wrote in mid-February in the Washington Times. "If we are to have any hope of preventing proliferation in the future, the United States must maintain a credible nuclear deterrent -- and undertake the associated testing, developmental and industrial actions."
But as all the world can see, watchdogs argue, today's enemies are of a different breed. Emerging threats from states like North Korea and Iran bear little resemblance to that of the massively armed Soviet Union of the Cold War. And America's continuing to develop its nuclear arsenal means little when it comes to stopping the Osama bin Ladens of the world -- while a new global arms race undoubtedly will make perilous materials more available to them.
"Suicidal terrorists willing to die for their cause," says Global Resource's Slater, "will not be deterred by our weapons."
Later this year, the Nevada Test Site will go ahead with the subcrit experiment, Unicorn. (Its exact date, closely guarded, is revealed only 48 hours in advance.) When it's time, the test materials will be lowered from the tower, beneath the earth's surface, and detonated in a hole 624 feet below ground -- as was done with the last full-scale test, "Divider," in 1992. The plutonium will be subjected to a powerful "back surface shock" using chemical high explosives. The detonation will take place out of sight -- but for the world's aspiring nuclear powers, not out of mind.
This story has been corrected since it was originally published.