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FYI Number 55: May 7, 2002

DOD Authorization Bill Supports Changes in Nuclear Test Readiness

On Thursday, the full House of Representatives will begin consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2003. One of the provisions in this bill, H.R. 4546, would affect the readiness of the Department of Energy to test nuclear weapons. It is estimated that it would require almost three years for the United States to resume underground nuclear testing. To reduce this time, H.R. 4546 requires that "The Secretary of Energy, in consultation with the Administrator for Nuclear Security, shall prepare a plan for achieving, not later than one year after the date on which the plan is submitted . . . a one-year readiness posture for resumption by the United States of underground nuclear weapons tests." When National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Under Secretary John Gordon testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February he discussed test readiness:

"During the NPR [Nuclear Posture Review], two concerns were raised about our test readiness program. First, a two to three year readiness posture may not be sustainable as more and more experienced test personnel retire. Not all techniques and processes required to carry out underground nuclear tests are exercised with the work carried out at the NTS [Nevada Test Site]. As experienced personnel retire, it will become more difficult to train new people in these techniques, further degrading test readiness. This argued for an approach in which key capabilities required to conduct nuclear tests are identified and exercised regularly on projects making use of a variety of nuclear test-related skills. Second, the current two to three year posture may be too long. If we believed that a defect uncovered in the stockpile surveillance program, or through new insight gained in R&D efforts, had degraded our confidence in the safety and/or reliability of the W76 warhead - the warhead deployed on Trident submarines and comprising the most substantial part of our strategic deterrent - the ability to conduct a test more quickly might be critically important."

During consideration of its authorization bill last week, House Armed Services Committee members defeated an amendment that would have required the President to notify Congress not less than one year before the resumption of nuclear testing, and would have required that the President certified that national security necessitated testing. In the report accompanying H.R. 4546 the committee explained:

"The President has stated that resumption of underground nuclear testing is not required at this time, and the Administration continues to observe the moratorium on nuclear testing. As reflected in justification materials submitted to Congress in support of the President's fiscal year 2003 budget request, the policy of the NNSA is to be capable of resuming underground testing within two to three years, should the President determine that such tests are necessary. The NNSA Administrator has stated that the current test readiness posture of the weapons complex is closer to three years.

"The most recent Nuclear Posture Review, submitted to Congress by the Department of Defense on January 8, 2002, supports reduction of the Department of Energy's test readiness lead- time.

"In its fiscal year 2001 report to Congress submitted on March 15, 2002, the Panel to Assess the Reliability, Safety, and Security of the United States Nuclear Stockpile recommends a test readiness of 3 months to a year depending on the type of test. The Panel notes that the test 'pedigree' of existing weapons is deteriorating with time, and that prudence dictates that the President should have a 'realistic option' to resume nuclear testing if technical or political events so require.

"The committee concurs with these recommendations. The committee believes that test readiness could be greatly enhanced by, among other actions, planning for specific tests, conducting site preparation activities, laying in diagnostics, and maintaining test articles at the Nevada Test Site. Section 3145 requires the Secretary of Energy, in consultation with the NNSA Administrator, to develop and report to Congress on a plan and budget to achieve a one-year readiness posture within one year of a decision to do so."

If House rules allow, representatives may be given an opportunity to vote on an amendment by Rep. John Spratt, Jr. (D- SC) and Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA). Both are members of the House Armed Services Committee. This amendment would not change the readiness of the United States to resume testing, but would require presidential notification to Congress of the intention to test. Amendment supporters contend that providing a year's notification before nuclear testing occurred would assure that Congress had sufficient time to consider the testing. The current version of the Spratt-Tauscher amendment states:

"(a) NOTIFICATION. Not less than 12 months before the United States conducts an underground test of a nuclear weapon, the President shall submit to Congress a report on the test to be conducted. The report shall include each of the following: (1) The date on which the President intends such test to be conducted. (2) The President's certification that the national security of the United States requires that such test be conducted, and an explanation of the reasons why the national security so requires. (3) An assessment of the expected reactions of other nations to the test. (b) REPORT ON TEST READINESS. Not later than March 1, 2003, the Secretary of Energy shall submit to Congress a report on the options for reducing the amount of time required to conduct an underground test of a nuclear weapon after a decision to conduct such a test is made. The report shall include the following: (1) The findings of the study carried out by the Department of Energy in fiscal year 2002 that examined such options. (2) The assessment of the Secretary as to whether reducing such amount of time to less than 24 to 36 months is feasible. (3) The technical challenges and requirement associated with reducing such amount of time to less than 24 to 36 months. The cost, during the period from fiscal year 2003 to 2012, associated with reducing such amount of time to less than 24 to 36 months."

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3095

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