Subcritical Nuclear Weapons Test Scheduled for February

Plutonium Surprisingly Unstable According to Russian Scientists

Demonstrations Against Star Wars Programs Planned for 2000

*The US Department of Energy conducted two dry runs of a nuclear weapons test at the Nevada Test Site on January 18, in preparation for subcritical nuclear test that is scheduled for February of this year. The February operation is called "Oboe 3", and will be the latest in a series of 40 planned subcritical nuclear tests that started in 1997 at the Nevada Test Site, which is located on Native American lands under the stewardship of the Western Shoshone Nation.

In spite of the environmental hazards of subcritical nuclear testing and the difficulties it creates for the successful negotiation of an international Comprehensive Test Ban agreement, the Department of Energy stated that subcritical nuclear weapons tests are "no longer newsworthy" and pointed out that it is not required to publicize information about the testing until after the event. Environmental activists disagree. There will be protests at the Nevada Test Site as well as Lawrence Livermore National Lab, where OBOE was created.

*Russian metallurgists presented detailed evidence last year to support their claim that weapons-grade plutonium is a far more unstable element than previously admitted by American nuclear scientists, a finding which may have far-reaching consequences for the reliability and maintenance of the US nuclear weapons stockpile.

While American scientists believed for decades that the so-called "delta phase" of plutonium alloyed with Gallium was rock stable, the Russian findings indicate that plutonium in the delta phase shows tendencies to decompose to the alpha form. The alpha form of plutonium is far denser and has a smaller volume, thus increasing the threat of ruined mechanical assemblies and changes in the critical mass for a nuclear chain reaction.

Plutonium instability could mean a sharp decline in the lifetime of nuclear weapons cores, in theory reducing them from some 70 years to as little as 20 years. Faster aging of the weapons stockpile might cause the United States to begin remanufacturing nuclear arms much sooner than expected and at considerable additional costs. "The rate of aging has a tremendous impact on things like the size of the production facility and its annual throughput," says Dr. Matthew McKenzie, a former Los Alamos researcher who now works with a Washington-based group that tracks nuclear arms.

Some anti-nuclear activists fear that the findings will be used as a pretext for more plutonium manufacturing.

*The Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space has announced a series of protests this year that will highlight Pentagon plans to deploy weapons in space. The demonstrations include a protest vigil to be held on January 31 at the 17th Annual Symposium on Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion in Albuquerque, which is a conference of Air Force, NASA, the Department of Energy, the aerospace industry and pro-nuclear academia to promote the expanded use of nuclear power for space-based weapons. Moreover, there will be a demonstration at the Phillips Laboratory on the Kirtland Air Force Base against the lab's self-declared mission is to "dominate the 21st century battlefield in space with directed-energy weapons and countermeasures".

"The Pentagon and their corporate allies are pushing hard to move the arms race into space," says Bruce Gagnon, Coordinator of the Florida-based Global Network who will be leading the protests. "Albuquerque plays a key role in this effort to nuclearize and weaponize space. We are building an international movement to stop this bad seed of war from being sent into the heavens."

Other plans for this year include a series of events in Washington DC in April to protest the deployment of a Ballistic Missile Defense system, which would violate the US's Anti-Ballistic-Missile-Treaty with Russia and put at risk the arms-control treaty framework that has evolved over the last 30 years. Over $120 billion has been spent on Star Wars research so far, and present funding for space weapons development is now at Reagan-era levels.

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