Newspaper column: Nevada could contribute to rebound of national defense

Nevada knows nukes, or at least we used to.

First, the election of Donald Trump reignited the debate over the possible resurrection of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository. Now, with a simple tweet Trump has reopened discussions about the preparedness, or lack thereof, of America’s nuclear arsenal.

“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” Trump’s 118-character missive declared this past week.

Nuclear test at Nevada Test Site

Nuclear test at Nevada Test Site

Trump’s newly appointed spokesman Sean Spicer went on television the next day and said the president-elect was not trying to restart an arms race with Russia and China but rather deter one.

“He’s going to ensure that other countries get the message that he’s not going to sit back and allow that,” Spicer told NBC. “And what’s going to happen is they will come to their senses, and we will all be just fine.”

This would be a sharp reversal of Obama’s avowed policy of avoiding nuclear proliferation. In 2009 he called for the U.S. to lead efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons — putting the Genie back in the bottle as some might say.

Between the U.S., Russia, China and a handful of other nations there are already enough nuclear weapons to make the rubble bounce, as we used to say, and enough to create a Nuclear Winter. (And Obama says the biggest threat to mankind is global warming.)

Nevada was ground zero for nuclear preparedness throughout the Cold War. On a 1,375-square-mile tract of land in Nye County known first as the Nevada Proving Grounds, then the Nevada Test Site and now the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), thousands of workers developed the nation’s nuclear deterrence capabilities by detonating more than 900 nuclear devices. A few workers there continue to experiment with subatomic tests.

With most of the nation’s nuclear arsenal sitting on the shelf for decades, NNSS would be the logical location for testing, refitting, overhauling, updating and replacing those weapons.

But Yucca Mountain and nearby Groom Lake, or Area 51 — where stealth aircraft and other top secret weaponry have been tested for decades — could also play a role.

Yucca Mountain (AP photo)

Yucca Mountain (AP photo)

Instead of dumping commercial nuclear reactor waste at Yucca Mountain, it could be reprocessed, as many other nations do.

But in 1977 Jimmy Carter banned reprocessing because it creates weapons-grade nuclear material and he feared a nuclear proliferation and potential for that material to be obtained by terrorists or a rogue state, which has never happened, though Great Britain, France, Japan and others routinely reprocess.

That weapons-grade material from reprocessing could be used to update the arsenal and the reprocessed fuel could power commercial nuclear reactors for years and drastically reduce the amount of waste.

The nation’s offensive and defensive efforts under Obama have lain fallow. The three Nevada sites could be employed to do more than merely deter sane nations with a policy of mutually assured destruction — appropriately summed up with the acronym MAD.

Research and development could be directed toward deploying reliable countermeasures against an ICBM attack from an orbit over the South Pole, which was not envisioned back in the day of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. And it need not be just anti-ballistic missile technology.

Little has been done in recent years to harden the nation’s electric grid and electronic technology against the disabling power of the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that is generated by a nuclear weapon, which could leave the entire nation in the dark, without communications or operational vehicles. That could come from terrorists or one of those rogue dictatorships that have or are developing nuclear devices, not just Russia and China.

Research also needs to continue on electronic rail guns that could target incoming missiles, as well as EMP or laser or X-ray weapons that use a small nuclear detonation as a source of energy — ground- or space-based.

Nevada has the infrastructure in place already, though most of the worker expertise has moved on or died off. The state’s universities and the Desert Research Institute could be called upon to educate the necessary workforce, as well as the various nuclear labs around the country that have seen personnel laid off and budgets cut.

Nevada has long contributed to national defense, it could continue to do so.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Obama administration resurrects his ban-the-bomb stance from his student days

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Secretary of State John Kerry talk about banning the bomb (Getty Images)

You may say he is a dreamer, but he’s not the only one.

Out of the blue the Obama administration’s Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz are calling for a new round of talks in an attempt to revive the nuclear test ban treaty that the Senate nixed in 1999.

After giving Iran the green light to develop its own nuclear weapons at some time in the vague future — after Obama is out of office presumably — now seems like an odd time to resurrect Obama’s youthful, naifish dream of a nuke free world.

“I don’t think I was that unique at that time,” Obama has since said of his 1983 article in a Columbia University publication calling for for nuke-free world, “and I don’t think I’m that unique today in thinking that if we could put the genie back in the bottle, in some sense, that there would be less danger — not just to the United States but to people around the world.”

Nevada Test Site bomb test (Nevada State Museum)

There hasn’t been a full-blown, so to speak, nuclear weapon test at the Nevada Test Site since 1992, according to a Review-Journal article by Keith Rogers.

“From 1951 through 1992, the test site’s role focused on full-scale tests of nuclear weapons. During that time, 100 were conducted in the atmosphere until the Limited Test Ban Treaty took effect in 1963. That was followed by 828 that rumbled through the desert after they were set off below ground in shafts and tunnels,” Rogers writes. “The last one, Divider, was conducted on Sept. 23, 1992. What followed was a moratorium that has been extended indefinitely.”

But what has followed are underground subcritical tests. There have been at least two dozen of those.

But those apparently would not violate a nuclear test ban treaty. According to Lawrence Livermore scientists, in these experiments chemical high explosives are detonated next to samples of weapons-grade plutonium to obtain information about what happens to the plutonium in a matter of microseconds. No critical mass is formed — no self-sustaining nuclear fission chain reaction or detonation.

Earlier this summer the Air Force did drop a dummy nuke bomb at the Tonopah Test Range. The tests are designed to assure the continued reliability of the weapon’s parts.

According to Politico, shortly after Kerry and Moniz started talking about a test ban treaty, Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican called the effort “almost comical.”

“It wasn’t in our national security interests then, it’s not in our interests now, and it won’t be in the future,” Cotton was quoted as saying in a statement. “If the Obama administration intends to ‘reopen’ the discussion over Senate ratification of the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) then I intend to ‘reopen’ the fight against it.”

How confident are we that our current nuclear weapons still work as intended after all these decades? Just asking.