The United States has tacitly participated in an agreement to ban underground testing of nuclear weapons, but recent reports indicate that a unique device the length of a football field will be built in the Nevada desert to allow the testing of nuclear material without causing an explosion.
One nuclear scientist compared the current situation to the idea of having a car in storage for 30 to 50 years and expecting it to start and run the way it is intended. Without testing, scientists can’t predict whether the weapons in the nation’s aging surplus will function as intended if needed.
The latest project will use a type of particle accelerator that will analyze plutonium at what is known as a sub-critical level, the point just before the radioactive material hits critical mass and releases radiation. The construction is slated to begin in March 2024. The device will be assembled and tested on-site, then disassembled and put back together at a depth of 1,000 feet. Experts say it will be operational sometime in 2027.
Testing at sub-critical mass levels is sometimes referred to as “tickling the sleeping dragon’s tail.” The saying is said to have originated during the testing of the first nuclear bombs by the U.S. Scientists were not sure what the bombs would do and there was a possibility that an uncontrollable reaction could have been ignited.
Several nuclear scientists have died over the years while conducting so-called tickling the sleeping dragon’s tail experiments. One nuclear core that was essential in early experiments with sub-critical mass ultimately killed several people involved in the experiments.
That core was known as Demon Core, and it was initially meant to be the third bomb dropped on Japan. The surrender of that nation following two nuclear detonations left Demon Core with little military purpose. In two separate instances, scientists accidentally caused the core to go critical mass for brief bursts. The scientists died of radiation sickness days after exposure. Others who were accidentally exposed had high rates of cancer attributed to radiation.
Operation Buster-Jangle began in Oct. 1951 as a series of seven nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States at the Nevada Test Site.
— Atomic Museum (@AtomicMuseum) October 1, 2023
The new device being built in Nevada will allow researchers to test the detonation abilities of existing nuclear weapons without actually detonating them by keeping the reaction at the sub-critical level.
Recent intelligence reports suggest that both China and Russia have reinvested in programs to build underground testing facilities. Satellite photography has shown increased activity at a site in Northern Russia used for testing Russia’s new nuclear-powered cruise missile. A massive testing site has been identified in the Chinese desert believed to be under construction for the purpose of testing nuclear weapons.
North Korea is the only country to have tested nuclear weapons in recent decades, last doing so in 2017. India and Pakistan both tested weapons in 1998. China, Russia, and the U.S. have agreed not to test nuclear weapons since 1992.