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At a nuclear deterrence summit held last week in Arlington, Virginia, a top official with the Nevada National Security Site (formerly the Nevada Test Site) announced that the EDIZA subcritical experiment had been 'fired' hours earlier. The verbal mention of the subcritical test by Mark Martinez--the site's director since late 2017--was reported by Dan Leone, a U.S. national defense reporter attending the summit, in a tweet. Conducted on February 13, 2019, the EDIZA test was the U.S.'s 29th subcritical nuclear experiment since the moratorium on underground nuclear testing went into effect in 1992. 

Subcritical experiments are conducted by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and involve the bombardment of weapons-grade plutonium in a sealed underground container by chemical explosives, X-rays and/or other means of gauging the aging quality of plutonium in nuclear warheads--the stated purpose of the NNSA's subcritical nuclear tests. Although the thorny task of defining a 'nuclear explosion' has frustrated nuclear weapons treaty negotiators for decades, the NNSA insists their subcritical experiments have no yield despite the fact that plutonium fissions in any subcritical test in the same way it does in a nuclear blast--so, a small finite yield is achieved. In a subcritical experiment, the chain reaction of fissioning resulting in a detectable, explosive blast is prevented by experimental design (however, this cannot be verified under existing treaties).

In recent years, U.S. subcritical tests have become more complex, occurring in steel vessels resembling deep-ocean diving bells containing within them shrunken models of nuclear warhead primaries filled with larger amounts of plutonium than in prior tests. Expenditures for the tests related to scientific diagnostic equipment upgrades and people (there's been a surge in NNSA subcritical experiment-related job listings over the past year) are on the rise. So is law enforcement targeting protest actions. Read about one Nevada activist group's experience last fall that was documented in the article by The Nuclear Resister "After Three Decades, Trespass Prosecutions Resume at Nevada Nuclear Test Site." 

The NNSA's previous subcritical test, 'Vega,' conducted in December 2017, drew condemnation from around the world including Japanese mayors and peace groups and the U.K.-based Council for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

As I reported in my article about Vega, a 2018 NNSA report changed the 'readiness timeline' for underground nuclear testing resumption, allowing nuclear bomb detonations to resume in the U.S. in six months time from any moment by order of the President.

The NNSA has scheduled the four-test 'Nightshade' series of subcritical experiments for 2019-2020. 'Nightshade A,' the next subcritical test, is planned for December 2019.

Andrew Kishner ( is an anti-nuclear activist and author. 
Copyright © 2019 Andrew Kishner (ASCENT), All rights reserved.

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