Building a Better Bomb

While condemning India for its nuclear testing, the U.S. government quietly funnels billions to research programs aimed at creating an ever-more-virulent nuclear arsenal

But even after the U.S. began scaling back the size of its stockpile, the weapons labs insisted that testing was still vital to the nation's security.

Appearing before Congress and lobbying successive presidential administrations, the directors of the labs -- backed by some of the nation's most esteemed physicists -- have argued that adopting a test ban would spell doom for the nuclear tribe.

The country's most seasoned designers, the men and women who have been to the desert, would die off, taking with them knowledge and insight possessed only by those who have successfully exploded nuclear bombs. Care of the arsenal would pass into the hands of nuclear neophytes. Future generations of scientists would work with records and reports -- not the actual experience that only tests can provide.

The nuclear tribe would shrink and its abilities suffer. "You'd always get people in the program, but I wouldn't trust their judgment," says Livermore's Hogan.

Those arguments, coming from respected scientists, long hindered the prospects of a permanent test ban treaty.

Almost immediately after nuclear testing began, those who wanted to stop or limit the spread of nuclear weapons developed their own, inverse maxim of the bomb makers' First Commandment -- if you don't blow things up, you can't build new bombs.

If nuclear testing could be stopped, the reasoning went, there would be no more new warheads. Of course, the genie could never be stuffed back into its bottle. But a test ban would at least halt the advancement of nuclear weaponry, keeping the genie from growing bigger and stronger.

Under a test ban, countries that have already conducted nuclear tests would be unable to collect more data useful in designing future weapons, the theory goes. And countries that have not conducted any tests in the past will not have the base of knowledge needed to develop nuclear weapons in the future.

There is a small community of men -- and it is mostly men -- now well into their 70s whose entire professional lives have been spent pushing the test ban treaty uphill. Spurgeon Keeny is one of them. He is 73 years old, and sounds like a man who has long carried a burden. "Our main issue now is to get this treaty ratified, which is not going to be easy," says Keeny, speaking by phone from the D.C. offices of the Arms Control Association. "The situation is so serious, and the consequences of failure so bad."

Keeny first began working for a test ban treaty under Eisenhower. In 1958, he was a member of U.S. delegations sent to Geneva to begin discussions of how a ban could be scientifically verified. Over the years, Keeny became a distinguished scholar of nuclear weaponry and negotiation. He headed the Defense Department's Atomic Energy Division, and was technical assistant to presidential science advisers under Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.

Now president of the Arms Control Association, Keeny still hopes a test ban will take hold in his lifetime. "Without testing, there will be no significant advances in nuclear weapons," Keeny predicts. "The ban on testing means the U.S. and other nuclear states won't be able to develop new, sophisticated nuclear weapons."

For decades Keeny's goal remained elusive, but on Sept. 24, 1996, President Clinton finally signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on behalf of the U.S. The treaty still requires ratification by the U.S. Senate, and the administration is having trouble getting it by North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, whose committee must first nod its approval.

Of the 149 other nations that have also signed the treaty, only a handful have actually ratified it, among them Britain and France, whose legislative bodies each endorsed it in early April.

Until recently, India had refused to sign the treaty, and the reason became clear three weeks ago when it conducted five underground tests. Armed with the data from those tests, the knowledge needed to ensure its place as a nuclear power, India now is saying it might sign. But Pakistan is balking as it considers whether to conduct its own underground tests.

It is too early to tell if test ban advocates may finally win. As a matter of national policy, however, Clinton has stopped U.S. underground testing, as President Bush did before him. Presidential orders, of course, can be reversed with a change of administration. A treaty would be more permanent.

Just to get the treaty this far, Clinton had to find some way to overcome the resistance of the weapons labs. The answer was the Stockpile Stewardship program, which Clinton approved shortly after taking office in 1993. At an average of $4 billion a year, the labs will be given the money and equipment they need to conduct "virtual testing" of nuclear weapons. It won't be exactly the same as real, live explosions, but it will be very close.

So close, in fact, that the lab directors and some scientists have dropped their opposition to the test ban treaty.

Also so close, critics argue, that the program guarantees the country's nuclear arms industry will continue to roll along for generations, devising "new" weapons, pushing envelopes, and solving physics problems that could well usher in whole new classes of weaponry that we can now barely comprehend.

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