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World: Report Says U.S. Working On New Nuclear Designs

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 22 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A new report made public by an environmental organization opposing nuclear weapons says the U.S. is modifying and creating new designs for its nuclear arsenal, thereby undermining an international treaty signed by U.S. President Bill Clinton last year.

The Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released its report this week after obtaining a copy of a previously classified document issued by the U.S. Department of Energy -- the federal agency responsible for overseeing the nation's nuclear stockpile.

The document, referred to as the "Green Book," contains detailed plans for the maintenance and management of U.S. nuclear weapons. NRDC says the existence of the document was known to very few persons outside classified government circles until late 1996 when the organization came across a memo that referred to it.

The document was declassified in June, but the NRDC had to sue the Department of Energy before it finally released a copy. The NRDC says the Department was reluctant to make the document available because even in its declassified form, it shows that the U.S. government is not being entirely forthcoming about its nuclear weapons activities.

According to NRDC report, the "Green Book" outlines a program for American scientists and researchers to develop methods to get around underground nuclear testing bans and work on new and modified designs of atomic weapons.

Some of the methods listed in the program, says the NRDC, include "virtual testing" or using supercomputers to simulate an underground nuclear explosion.

Underground nuclear testing is a practice banned by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an international pact designed to put an end to the nuclear arms race by forbidding detonations. The treaty has been signed by 146 nations, including the U.S., but the U.S. Senate has yet to ratify it.

Matthew McKinzie, a project scientist at NRDC and co-author of the report told RFE/RL that his organization was not accusing the U.S. government of violating the letter of the treaty -- but simply acting in bad faith.

"The only way the U.S. could violate the letter of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would be if the U.S. conducted an underground explosive nuclear test. What we are concerned about are the experimental and computational nuclear weapons capabilities that are set to be acquired by U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories," says McKinzie.

McKinzie says NRDC's greatest worry is that these nuclear weapons might replace underground nuclear testing and even surpass them in some ways.

However, Department of Energy officials deny they are designing new nuclear weapons and say their work is in full compliance with international treaties and accords.

Carmen McDougall, a spokeswoman at the Department of Energy told RFE/RL that the program outlined in the "Green Book" is designed to ensure that the U.S.'s existing nuclear weapons remain safe and reliable in the absence of nuclear testing.

McDougall says the program is, in fact, designed to ensure that the U.S. does not have to return to nuclear testing. She acknowledges that the program includes specifics about how the Department will maintain its capability to design replacement warheads and replace parts of aging warheads, but adds that "all of these activities are consistent with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty."

McDougall's statement is supported by Robert Bell, an adviser to President Bill Clinton on arms control issues. Bell told an American newspaper -- "USA Today": "We have no requirement for, nor are we developing any new types of nuclear warheads."

But McKinzie says government officials are directly contradicting themselves. He cites a part of the program that discusses replacement warheads for the Trident II -- a sea-launched nuclear ballistic missile.

McKinzie says that one of the replacements is listed as a "new design" that will not require underground testing for certification.

"This report shows that the U.S. government does not yet know when modifications to an existing weapon design results in a new weapon design," says McKinzie.

McKinzie adds that if the plans outlined in the "Green Book" are implemented, it would "erode important U.S. nonproliferation objectives and compromise the security value of the treaty to other nations."

In Moscow, in response to Western media reports about the contents of the "Green Book," Russian Deputy Atomic Minister Lev Ryabev told reporters on Thursday that he knows the U.S. is designing new nuclear bombs. He specifically cited what he said was information about a new nuclear bomb designed by the U.S. that supposedly tunnels into the ground before detonating.

However, Ryabev added that this bomb was simply an upgrade of existing nuclear weapons rather than the creation of a new nuclear explosive device. Therefore, said Ryabev, since the nuclear warhead itself is not being changed, it did not contradict the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

"Russia is also not banned by anybody or anything from working to upgrade its nuclear weapons," said Ryabev.

He added that Russian nuclear centers are working in this field as well and are trying to raise the safety of the storage and handling of nuclear bombs -- all activities in full compliance with international treaties.