Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Going subcritical: a nuclear test for a nuclear test destroys the entire world

In 1992, the Nevada Test Site hosted the last of over 800 underground nuclear detonations that had commenced in 1961. Five years later, in 1997, the DOE began a program of subcritical testing at the test site that has continued on through today. The philosophical differences between the two types of tests are minimal. The difference between an underground nuclear test and a subcritical experiment can be compared to the difference between firing an actual bullet as opposed to firing a blank.

You may think that the DOE isn't 'aiming' their gun at someone, and therefore no crime is committed, yet their 'gun' is in fact aimed. It is aimed at arguably the entire world. Locally, the DOE is pointing its gun at the Western Shoshone and all peoples who consume the air, the soil and water in Nevada and Utah. Critics of these tests also say that the DOE is aiming their 'gun' at any of the countries in the 'axis-of-evil,' and using these tests to send a threatening message of the U.S.'s intent to use nuclear weapons again.

Like underground nuclear tests, subcritical tests have a legacy of contamination that is stored underground. It is not impossible for the plutonium waste of subcritical tests to leach into the groundwater. The impacts to groundwater of the nearly two dozen subcritical tests conducted since 1997 have not been determined to date at the test site. Likewise, it is not impossible that subcritical tests can 'go critical' to the extent of producing some airborne fission byproducts that can eventually vent to the surface.

Since 1997, the DOE has aimed their gun and fired blanks over and over again. And the impact is no different than when a madman runs around aiming a gun at other people and firing blanks. The effect is de-stabilizing.

After the U.S. conducted its first subcritical test called 'Rebound' in 1997, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman immediately urged the U.S. to not carry out activities that do not conform with the CTBT, saying 'We stress that all countries should faithfully abide by stipulations in the nuclear test ban treaty.' In Nevada, anti-nuclear activists did their best to stop 'Rebound': three activists traveled on bicycles onto the test site near the detonation site and seven others blocked a public highway when a media bus tried to enter the gates. Some activists even crawled under the bus but were dragged out by Nevada Highway Patrol and Department of Energy security personnel. Similar nonviolent actions tried to halt later subcritical tests, although unsuccessfully, and in 1997 a dozen U.S. anti-nuclear organizations brought a lawsuit against the DOE to stop the subcritical tests. In late 1997, Russia first confirmed that it had a subcritical testing program dating back to the 1980s. In 1998 the U.S. claimed that it was conducting more tests to respond to ongoing Russian subcritical testing. On May 11, 1998, the government of India conducted a set of three underground atomic tests followed two days later by another two such blasts. These were the first nuclear tests conducted by India since 1974. An official announcement of the second set of blasts stated: 'The tests have been carried out to generate additional data for improved computer simulation of designs and for attaining the capability to carry out subcritical experiments, if considered necessary.' Two weeks later Pakistan joined the nuclear weapon club when it announced it had conducted five underground nuclear tests.

In early 1998, the European Parliament concluded that the United States was creating a 'crisis of confidence' in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by conducting subcritical experiments and passed a resolution urging the United States to 'halt the series of subcritical tests' which could otherwise jeopardize the treaty's entry into force. The resolution mentioned that at least 15 countries expressed their concern or opposition to the tests, among them Iran.

Protests by anti-nuclear organizations, foreign governments and international bodies continued against U.S. subcritical testing through about 2003, when worldwide and local dissent began to soften for unknown reasons. Then came the North Korean government's first mention of a nuclear test on Sept. 7, 2006. That nuclear test came on the heels of the United States' successful completion eight days earlier of its 23rd subcritical nuclear experiment. In its Sept. 7th announcement of the test, North Korea's Central News Agency noted that a South Korean group, the National Alliance for the Country's Reunification, made a statement accusing the United States' subcritical test as an 'obvious criminal act of disturbing the global peace.'

Subcritical testing is a threat to world peace and stability, and citizens should make use of an opportunity to voice their concerns about the legitimacy, impacts to global peace and environmental affects of these tests through May 30th. Visit and learn how you can tell the DOE that they should initiate a new Environmental Impact Statement process for the Nevada Test Site that will undoubtedly re-vitalize and address this important issue.

Read the 1998 European Parliament resolution here:

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