Keeping the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal Safe, Secure and Reliable

It has been more than 17 years since the last U.S. nuclear test explosion. In 1992, following the end of the Cold War and a Russian nuclear test moratorium, President George H. W. Bush announced a halt to the development of new types of nuclear warheads. That same year, Congress mandated a 9-month moratorium on nuclear weapon test explosions. By 1993, President Bill Clinton extended the moratorium. Though President George W. Bush did not support the CTBT, he did not resume U.S. nuclear testing.

Over the past two decades, the ability of the United States to maintain the reliability of its stockpile without testing has demonstrated that the U.S. nuclear arsenal can be effectively and reliably maintained under a permanent CTBT.

It has also established that maintaining the reliability of proven U.S. nuclear warhead designs does not depend on a program of nuclear test explosions. Instead, the U.S. nuclear arsenal can (and has been) maintained through non-nuclear tests and evaluations, combined with the replacement and remanufacture of key components to previous design specifications. Since 1994, each warhead type in the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal has been determined to be safe and reliable through a rigorous certification process instituted following the end of U.S. nuclear testing.

For more than fifteen years, a nationwide infrastructure of nuclear weapons research, evaluation and manufacturing sites and laboratories has been maintained and enhanced for this purpose under the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP). Currently, the United States spends more than $6 billion annually on its Stockpile Stewardship Program, which includes nuclear weapons surveillance and maintenance, non-nuclear and subcritical nuclear experiments, sophisticated supercomputer modeling, and life-extension programs for the existing warhead types in the enduring U.S. nuclear stockpile.
Though the U.S. nuclear is aging, more is known about U.S nuclear weapons than ever before and confidence in the ability to maintain the warheads is increasing at a faster rate than the uncertainties. For instance, in 2006 the Department of Energy announced that studies by Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories show that the plutonium primaries, or pits, of most U.S. nuclear weapons “will have minimum lifetimes of at last 85 years,” which is about twice as long as previous official estimates.
Over time, the reliability of existing warheads can be maintained by replacing non-nuclear parts that can be validated through non-nuclear testing and evaluation.
Contrary to the concerns of some CTBT skeptics, the cessation of nuclear explosion testing had not caused the weapons laboratories to lose technical competence. Rather, significant advances have been achieved as researchers were able to study the physics underlying weapon performance in greater depth, undistracted by the demands of a nuclear weapons test explosion program.
Senate approval of the CTBT would further help to strengthen bipartisan support for effective stockpile stewardship efforts to ensure that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the U.S. nuclear arsenal remains safe and reliable. In the exceedingly rare case that the U.S. decides that it needs to test a nuclear weapon, it has the option of exercising the CTBT “supreme national interest” withdrawal clause.