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  Key Issues Nuclear Weapons Issues Testing Article, Warren Bates

Test Site Explosion First One in Five Years

Las Vegas Review Journal
July 3, 1997
By Warren Bates.

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Scientists begin experiments to gauge the reliability of nations nuclear weapons stockpile.

With hopes that nuclear testing soon can be done by computer simulation, scientists at the Nevada Test Site conducted the first of a series of experiments Wednesday designed to ensure the country's stockpile of weapons is operational.

At 10a.m. scientists detonated project "Rebound," marking the first time since September 1992 that an underground blast has been set off beneath the desert floor at the test site.

Ten anti-nuclear activists were arrested while protesting the "subcritical" experiment so named because it stops short of setting off a nuclear fission chain reaction.

Three people were caught on test site property about 4:45 a.m. after having biked near the detonation site. Seven others were charged with blocking a public highway when a media bus tried to enter the gates at Mercury, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Some protesters crawled under the bus and had to be dragged out by Nevada Highway Patrol and Department of Energy security personnel.

"It's an important day for the Science based Stockpile Stewardship Program," said Robin Staffin, the Energy Department's deputy assistant secretary for research and development. "This to me is one of the messages, that were able to use an experimental facility to do our job without nuclear testing.

Rebound is the first of a series of subcritical experiments estimated to cost about $20 million each. Wednesdays test used 3.3 pound of plutonium and about 160 pounds of chemical explosives.

But the explosions measured 1 percent the size of conventional nuclear tests. Unlike Wednesdays experiment which used new plutonium, future tests will use aged plutonium to replicate the condition of the nations aging stockpile.

The data will be used to build computer models that will be part of a "virtual" nuclear weapons tests, a methodology the Energy Department says is about 10 years away.

Critics of Rebound have charged that the project is a way for the United States to skirt provisions of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty signed by President Clinton and nearly 200 nations. It is, they insist, a way to once again assert dominance in the nuclear arms race and research new ways to build nuclear weapons.

Staffin, said Wednesday that the treaty's signers are all aware of the nature of the experiments.

"We have received, to my knowledge, no expressions of concern or anxieties by foreign governments," he said.

Jacob Perea, staff member at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said even though plutonium has been in use since atomic testing began 50 years ago, not much in known about its properties or how it holds up over time. In the days of atmospheric and underground testing, he said the method was simple: detonate the weapon and see if it worked and determine how many kilotons it was.

"It was more empirical, straightforward," he said. "Now that were not testing, we don't have that luxury.and if we cant do this, we are less able to authoritatively tell the DOE and the department of defense the weapons are still good, especially 10 years from now."

Joe Fioro, assistant manager of National Security in the DOE's Nevada office said, subcriticals are necessary because ultimately scientists will need to use real data from below ground explosions.

"In a sense these tests preclude us from having to do nuclear tests." He said.

Staffin said shortly after the blast that no radiation was recorded above normal background levels, meaning that the experiment did not reach "criticality."

Judy Triechel, a member of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force said that she opposes the subcriticals and hoped that the "super powers would "give up on maintenance of the stockpile."

"The feeling is, that if the weapons can't be used and can't be counted on, then we don't have to worry about nuclear wa," she said. "I think clean up is kind of getting the short shrift here."

"As far as I know they have been able to do simulated tests and have been able to do so for some time," she said. "If we have a test ban we should treat it as a test ban. It's not a matter of changing the terminology."

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