Panel: US can maintain nuclear arms without tests

Mar 30, 2012, 5:54 PM

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) – A study by the National Academy of Sciences has found that the U.S. can maintain its nuclear arsenal without resuming the testing program it suspended nearly 20 years ago, addressing a key issue in the debate over ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The study also found that monitoring networks would likely detect even relatively small nuclear blasts in most parts of the world, apparently countering concerns that other nations could cheat on the agreement without getting caught.

President Barack Obama’s has repeatedly called for Senate ratification of the treaty, most recently in a speech at the nuclear security summit in Seoul. The president has made arms control and nonproliferation central to his foreign policy and has pledged to work for a world free of nuclear weapons. The Associated Press reported in February that the administration is looking at plans to reduce the number of U.S.-deployed nuclear weapons by up to 80 percent.

Some Senate Republicans, though, have raised doubts that the aging U.S. arsenal could be counted on to work without periodic testing and have expressed concern that other countries might overtake the U.S. through clandestine nuclear tests.

The study, conducted by a 14-member panel made up mostly of technical experts, focuses on technical issues and does not take a position on ratification of the treaty, which President Bill Clinton signed in 1996 but the Senate rejected three years later.

“Technically, we think we can maintain the stockpile without nuclear testing,” Linton Brooks, former administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration under President George W. Bush, said in an interview Friday. “Technically, we believe that we can detect nuclear testing by others at any level under which the military balance would be affected.”

The unclassified version of the Academy of Sciences study released Friday found that advances in computer simulations of nuclear blasts have made scientists and specialists at U.S. nuclear labs increasingly less reliant on testing to maintain the arsenal.

“Provided that sufficient resources and a national commitment to stockpile stewardship are in place, the committee judges that the United States has the technical capabilities to maintain a safe, secure and reliable stockpile of nuclear weapons into the foreseeable future without nuclear-explosion testing,” the study’s authors wrote.

Meanwhile increasingly sophisticated seismic, acoustic and other sensor technology “will reduce the likelihood of successful clandestine nuclear-explosion testing, and inhibit the development of new types of strategic nuclear weapons,” the study found.

There has long been concern that some nations could cheat on the treaty by detonating nuclear weapons inside caverns excavated by previous blasts, muffling the ground-rattling impact of the shock waves.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization Preparatory Commission has completed construction of about 80 percent of an international monitoring system for detecting nuclear explosions, according to the report, which was finished last year but spent months being vetted for classified information.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would come into force after ratification by the 44 countries that possessed either nuclear weapons or nuclear reactors in 1996. Thirty-six nations have done so to date, including three of the nine nuclear-armed nations, Russia, Britain and France.

Although the U.S. has not ratified the treaty, it suspended testing less than a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

The other five nuclear-armed nations _ China, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and India _ have either not signed or not ratified the treaty. But most nuclear testing programs halted by the late 1990s. Only North Korea has conducted confirmed weapons tests in recent years, once in 2006 and another time in 2009.

The U.S. has conducted more nuclear tests than all other nations combined _ 1,030 _ and uses data from those tests in computer simulations that in recent years have answered many of the scientific questions about the physics of nuclear blasts. Moscow has conducted about 715, France 210, and Britain and China 45 each.

Three of the four nuclear-armed countries that developed them outside of the Non-Proliferation Treaty _ India, Pakistan, North Korea _ have tested a total of seven weapons, according to data from the Arms Control Association. Israel, which has an estimated 80 warheads but will not confirm or deny it has nuclear arms, has not conducted any confirmed tests.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Panel: US can maintain nuclear arms without tests