WASHINGTON — Although committed to a continued moratorium on underground nuclear weapons testing, the Bush administration says the country should reduce the time it will take to resume such tests should they be needed.
Nuclear nonproliferation advocates see the declaration, part of the administration's latest strategic nuclear plan, as evidence of a growing division within the administration over whether bomb testing is needed to assure the reliability of a dwindling number of warheads.
Members of Congress were briefed Tuesday on the latest, highly classified Nuclear Posture Review. The Defense Department was to provide an unclassified summary of the document Wednesday.
The review takes into account plans for deep cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next decade as promised by President Bush in November, according to congressional sources who attended the briefing.
After meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bush pledged to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal by two-thirds, to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads. The new strategic nuclear plan reflects those numbers, said the sources, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Bush administration told Congress that many of the warheads, bombs and intercontinental missiles involved in the reduction of strategic nuclear forces over the next 10 years would be kept in reserve, The Washington Post reported in Wednesday's editions.
The Nuclear Posture Review annually certifies the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. But some defense officials and weapons scientists have complained such certification has become increasingly difficult since no bomb actually has been detonated underground for nearly a decade.
Underground nuclear testing was banned in 1992 under a moratorium imposed by the first President Bush and reaffirmed by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
While the current President Bush has said he has no intention of resuming detonations at the Nevada Test Site, defense officials, in a classified briefing, expressed concern about the lag time to prepare for future testing. It takes two to three years to resume activities at the nation's nuclear weapons labs and at the Nevada site.
The debate over testing reflects concern within the administration — and among some members of Congress and the defense establishment — over the ability to ensure that warheads will work as expected if they are used.
So-called stockpile stewardship by the Energy Department and its nuclear weapons laboratories has become more complex and challenging without tests. The need to certify that aging warheads will perform as expected becomes increasingly important as their number is reduced, contend those who argue for a resumption of testing.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld reiterated Tuesday the administration's commitment to the ban on underground tests. "It certainly doesn't recommend resuming testing," Rumsfeld said when asked about the Nuclear Posture Review.
Still, the nuclear plan appeared to raise the specter of renewed testing, said test-ban supporters.
"Many war hawks who are weary of the U.S. decision to drastically cut nuclear arsenals ... are using (concerns about warhead reliability) to champion underground testing," said James Wyerman, executive director of 20/20 Vision, a disarmament advocacy group.
John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World, another nuclear proliferation watchdog group, said while the administration's nuclear review does not call for renewed testing it's "part of a pattern that they want to move toward nuclear testing."
As a substitute to testing, the Energy Department is developing technology that will allow scientists to use the world's most powerful computers and most sophisticated lasers to simulate nuclear detonation as they keep track of warhead performance.
But it will be years before those systems are fully in place.
Recently, several internal audits by the Energy Department's inspector general raised concern about the department's current programs for finding flaws and defects in warheads. Investigators found backlogs of as much as 18 months in testing, inspections and monitoring.
"If these delays continue the department may not be in a position to unconditionally certify the aging nuclear weapons stockpile," wrote DOE Inspector General Gregory Friedman.