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The last public protests in Washington, D.C. against subcritical nuclear tests were in the late 1990s. They have resumed.

Karin Tobin and Andrew Kishner (myself) held a banner that read 'STOP Subcritical Nuclear Testing' outside the Department of Energy building in D.C. this week. During our two-person protest on the afternoon of Monday, July 8th, and mid-day on Wednesday, July 10th, we handed out flyers (see below) and engaged in conversations with passers-by of all ages and nationalities who asked us 'What is a subcritical nuclear test?'  They are explosive (physics) experiments, we explained, that involve an amount of weapons-grade plutonium that is less than a critical mass (hence the term 'subcritical'). A 'critical mass' is the minimum amount of plutonium needed to sustain a chain reaction that leads to a nuclear explosion.  

Why protest? Why now?

The 'flame' of the anti-nuclear protest movement advocating against subcritical nuclear tests, which the Department of Energy (DOE) introduced as a new 'stockpile stewardship' activity in the mid-1990s, endured through the end of that decade but died out--even though the DOE has continued these subcritical tests up to the present.

Subcritical tests are held in the same facility and underground shaft in Nevada where U.S. underground nuclear tests would be held. They are unverified by any third party because the CTBT remains unratified. The U.S. has signed the CTBT but not ratified it. 

Since the 1990s, the DOE has argued that the reason for their subcritical tests is to study the aging properties of plutonium in warheads. But in 2019, DOE budget documents indicated that data procured from the tests could be used to re-design nuclear warheads. Budget documents also indicate that the pace of subcritical testing---there have been 29 of them since 1997--is expected to ramp up. Three subcritical tests are planned for 2020 alone. These are some of the reasons we feel that protesting subcritical tests is needed and needed now.

Our tiny protests were a success even though there were just two of us. Every flame needs a spark. Please read our flyer below and reach out to me if you would like more information.  I'll send another 'list' email when protests happen in the future and include details about how you can join us. 

-Andrew Kishner
[FLYER] What are Subcritical Nuclear Tests?
                            Why are they dangerous to peace?

Subcritical nuclear tests are explosive experiments conducted in an underground chamber at the Nevada National Security Site, previously known as the Nevada Test Site, where more than one thousand above and below-ground nuclear tests were detonated before 1992, when the nuclear testing moratorium act was signed into law.

Subcritical tests use weapons-grade plutonium, but the small amounts involved do not reach a self-sustaining “critical” fission chain reaction, or nuclear explosive yield. While subcritical tests may not technically violate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the U.S. has signed but not ratified, the tests undermine the spirit of the treaty.

Conducting subcritical tests underground at the Nevada National Security Site poses additional specific risks to the global test moratorium and the CTBT. Subcritical tests are conducted at the same site and exact same shaft and underground facility where fully critical underground nuclear weapons tests were conducted. Subcritical tests play a role in maintaining the readiness of the nuclear test site and the ability to prepare for resumption of nuclear explosive tests—but preparations for subcritical tests look very similar to preparations for what would be a fully critical test in violation of the CTBT and the test moratorium.

In 2019, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees the nation’s stockpile and the U.S.’s dormant test site in Nevada, proposed in budget documents that it wants to increase the rate of subcritical testing to two to three tests per year—a major increase in the rate of subcritical nuclear testing—and spend large sums of money on a diagnostics program called “Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments,” or ECSE. The total cost for the ECSE program will approach $1 billion by fiscal year 2024. Per budget documents, data acquired from the ECSE program will be used for re-designing warheads. Since 1997, the NNSA/Department of Energy has consistently argued that subcritical tests are used for studying the aging properties of plutonium to ensure reliability of the nation’s nuclear stockpile. Importantly, the re-design language in the 2019 budget documents marks the first instance since subcritical testing was initiated in 1997 that the stated purpose of the tests has changed. According to a new analysis, ‘these activities that make changes to weapons create pressure to consider resumption of nuclear explosive testing in order to certify them.’ Expanding and enhancing the subcritical test program in the context of the broader plans of the Trump Administration to develop new nuclear weapons, expand production capabilities, and walk away from arms control agreements, raises alarm bells.

The NNSA most recently conducted its 29th subcritical nuclear test since 1997 on February 13, 2019. That test, code-named ‘Ediza,’ leaked radioactivity in an underground alcove when a containment vessel breached. After a perfunctory root cause analysis, the NNSA is maintaining its plans to conduct three subcritical tests in 2020.
This brief is based on an analysis about subcritical tests by TriValleyCAREs. The full version is available at:

Copyright © 2019 Andrew Kishner (ASCENT), All rights reserved.

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