US To Resume Underground Nuclear Testing — Without Explosions

Weapons in the expansive U.S. nuclear arsenal have not been tested since 1992 due to the underground test ban. But scientists are preparing to ensure that the nation’s stockpile is still functional with upcoming desert exercises — only there will be no explosions.

Energy Department officials announced on Thursday that new tests have been formulated that they call “tickling the dragon.” These are to demonstrate the reliability of the weapons counted on to be an international deterrence to war.

The Scorpius Project carries a price tag of $1.8 billion and plans to move testing beyond the theoretical phase. John Custer, head of the Sandia Project, said this could be in place by 2027.

“Tickling the dragon’s tail” refers to the work of taking the experiment up near but beneath the threshold of igniting a chain reaction. The goal is to determine if the nation’s nuclear arsenal is still operational and effective.

The 1992 test ban removed the ability to validate whether nuclear weapons the U.S. maintains can currently be relied upon.

Early in the Cold War, explosions were conducted above ground that sent mushroom clouds into the atmosphere. Later these tests were limited to underground, but that avenue also ended three decades ago, meaning the status of the nation’s aging weapons is uncertain.

The new project has been in development for a decade. It involves a high-energy electron beam injector that is part of a machine that is larger than a football field in length.

That apparatus will ultimately reside 1,000 feet below the surface at the Nevada National Security Site. Custer said this process will provide information that is critically needed.

He explained, “If you had a car in a garage for 30 to 50 years and one day you insert the ignition key, how confident are you that it will start? That’s how old our nuclear deterrent is. It has been more than 30 years since we conducted an underground nuclear explosive test.”

The facility, formerly known as the Nevada Test Site, first saw nuclear testing in 1951 and has continued subcritical experiments since 1995. It is roughly 65 miles north of Las Vegas.

The first shipment of key components is scheduled to arrive in March. Assembly testing will commence in 2025 before the injector is moved underground.