The Mixed Legacy of Virtual Nuclear Weapons Testing

On the International Day Against Nuclear Tests

Today is the International Day Against Nuclear Tests, a day established by the UN to raise awareness of the dire impact of nuclear testing and the need for all states to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Banning testing globally would be a critical step forward in the much larger project of international disarmament. The CTBT is still an unfinished project, but US nuclear tests, driven underground in 1963 and halted indefinitely in 1992, have long been a thing of the past. American millennials have grown up in a world in which planned nuclear explosions—once a constant feature of the US defense apparatus—are regarded as unacceptable, even unthinkable: hence the ire directed at lone testing holdout North Korea.

The end of US testing was an unequivocal gain for humanity. Nuclear tests come with deplorable human costs and ruinous environmental effects. If our congress had even a vague sense of collective responsibility, it would ratify the CTBT today. But it’s important to bear in mind that the successor to the nuclear testing regime — the rather benevolent sounding Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) — is not without its own ambivalences. On its watch, nuclear testing has become unacceptable, but nuclear weapons certainly have not. Indeed, Stockpile Stewardship is predicated on the idea that our nuclear weapons will continue to exist and must be kept in peak condition.

But how do you test a bomb when bomb tests are banned? Quite simply, you model a nuclear explosion as closely as possible. In SSP, experiments and simulations are employed to gauge the health of the stockpile and plan for future complications. Two anthropologists, Hugh Gusterson and Joseph Masco, have spent years querying what it means for the US to have this sort of a “virtual” testing regime. Their research raises troubling questions about the increasingly aesthetic nature of weapons science and its estrangement from the core reality of nuclear weapons: that they are designed to inflict mass harm on a truly unparalleled scale.

The inner workings of SSP remain opaque to most of the public. Through a complex, multi-site apparatus involving lightning-fast supercomputers, subcritical explosions, high-speed x-ray photography, and high-powered lasers (among other components), scientists test the effectiveness of weapons, predict challenges for the aging arsenal, and make recommendations for refurbishment when necessary. Our long history of testing plays a key role in this process: information gathered from actual nuclear tests (we conducted more than 1,000 between 1945 and 1992) serves as a firm material basis by which to judge otherwise speculative weapon behavior. Scientists combine historical findings with contemporary data to revise and improve the computer codes they use to model nuclear explosions. The process makes use of cutting-edge technology at nearly every stage.

When Gusterson dubbed Stockpile Stewardship a “virtual” testing regime back in 2001, his use of the term was not meant to be purely provocative. As the above description makes clear, it is an accurate way of describing the indirect processes by which testing (if it can be understood as such) now occurs. The whole project is, if only out of necessity, several degrees removed from the reality of a nuclear test. That’s not to cast aspersions on the experiments, models, computer codes, and other representational tools utilized to monitor the stockpile — it’s simply to admit, as weapons scientists themselves do, that testing without testing is ultimately something else. Speaking philosophically, it is not the thing itself.

But SSP isn’t just virtual by means of a technicality. The term conjures up science fiction-style images of technological prostheses and simulated realities, and in this respect, the stewardship regime does not disappoint. Weapons scientists now use immersive facilities to directly engage with three-dimensional visualizations of data from their experiments and models. Indeed, they can now simulate the experience of being inside a nuclear explosion — from the atomic level outwards. In Los Alamos’ five-sided CAVE (Cave Automated Virtual Environment), which allows “full immersion and interaction with 43 million pixels of data,” scientists don VR goggles and gloves to examine and manipulate the images around them. Also at Los Alamos is the PowerWall, a “stereoscopic theater” (with stadium seating for more than 80 people) that projects 3D images onto high-resolution screens and likewise allows for tactile engagement with models and simulations. As Masco writes, such technological marvels construct “a conceptual space in which weapons scientists and weapons of mass destruction can comfortably coexist.” Simulation thus enables the virtual transcendence of the contradiction between catastrophic weapon and fragile human. I would add that this virtual space not only erases the brutal reality of a nuclear weapon’s impact on the human body, it also gives the illusion of human control. In the simulated harmony of the labs, nuclear risk is never capable of developing its own frightening autonomy.

It wasn’t always like this. Masco points out that aboveground testing, for all of its awfulness, did give weapons designers “momentary access to the possible real-world effects of their technoscientific work.” Attending a nuclear test was a shockingly visceral experience. We know from the testimonies of the Manhattan Project scientists that the Trinity test was a profoundly affecting event. To witness a nuclear explosion was to feel scorching heat on your skin or be knocked to the ground by a shockwave. It was to be directly, violently confronted with the bomb’s capacity to inflict devastating harm on the human body. In this early period, even the overall aim of weapons science was different: tests were designed to gauge the impact of a nuclear bomb on living things and human structures. There was no denying that the bomb was, well, a bomb.

But today the weapons labs are just not that interested in the military questions of yore. The Stewardship regime is currently in the midst of an ambitious “first principles” project to model every subprocess of a nuclear detonation. Scientists are probing deep into the physics of the bomb, but the project is highly compartmentalized, focused on cordoned-off areas of hyperspecialized study instead of examining the total object. When you combine this shift in approach with the irrealities of places like the CAVE, you can see why Masco regards weapons science today as “a purely creative project” worryingly detached from the destructive purpose at its core. Simulation, which on the one hand thankfully makes testing irrelevant, also depoliticizes the bomb by mystifying its nature as a weapon capable of enacting unprecedented violence on humanity.

Very few of us are weapons scientists. But it’s worth thinking about how we as members of the public are also affected by the mystifications of Stockpile Stewardship. We can all be grateful for the end of nuclear testing, but its virtual successor has truly driven our massive arsenal “underground” in the sense of its absence from popular consciousness. What became newly visible for weapons scientists became largely invisible to the public. From the 1990s until literally the last few weeks, US nuclear policy was almost entirely the domain of national security wonks and longtime peace activists. A lack of testing helped the arsenal fly below the radar as nuclear weapons became associated more with rogue states and terrorist groups than with countries like the US that have thousands of them. If we can thank Donald Trump for anything, it’s for returning this uncomfortable fact to mainstream discussion.

It is expected that next month, the President will advocate for a UN Security Council resolution against nuclear testing. His actions are commendable and should be supported. But while reaffirming the test prohibition is important, it should be regarded as a means to a much greater end. As the experience of Stockpile Stewardship shows, a testing ban won’t necessarily delegitimize nuclear weapons or build support for disarmament. In some ways, it can actually do the opposite. After all, our virtual testing regime still has something to test.

Any anti-testing initiative has to be part of a broader effort to limit and ultimately reduce the size of global arsenals. Taking our weapons off hair-trigger alert and making a no-first-use declaration would be excellent initial steps in this multi-stage process. In part because of Trump’s provocations, the US public is currently paying more attention to nuclear issues than it has at any time since the end of the Cold War. Let us hope our newly awakened citizenry will begin to push for a change in nuclear policy that is anything but virtual.


By: John Carl Baker / @JohnCarlBaker

John Carl Baker is a Mellon-ACLS Public Fellow at Ploughshares Fund, where he works as a Political Engagement Strategist. John holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from George Mason University and has presented research at numerous academic conferences, including the annual meetings of the Cultural Studies Association, the Labor and Working Class History Association, and the American Comparative Literature Association. His current book project examines the intersection between late Cold War disarmament culture and the transition to neoliberalism in the United States. He splits his time between San Francisco and the DC suburbs.

Photo: The Sandia Z-Machine at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, Oct. 28, 2011. Flickr / Randy Montoya (cc)

The Mixed Legacy of #Virtual Testing On the Int'l Day Against #Nuclear Tests.

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