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Bulletin 216: More on the budget; the mountain of misinformation

February 11, 2016

  • A bit more on the administration’s final nuclear weapons budget request
  • The mountain of misinformation, silence, and confusion in our society is growing

Dear friends –

On Tuesday, what will be the last federal budget request fully written by this administration was presented to Congress, including proposed budgets for nuclear warhead activities in the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) part of the Department of Energy (DOE), and for the rest of nuclear weapon systems in the Department of Defense (DoD).

It was mostly a “steady-as-she-goes” budget for nuclear weapons – which means a steadily-growing budget – with few surprises.

Aaron Mehta in Defense News (he of some excellent recent reporting on nuclear modernization programs) summarized the proposed budget for DoD nuclear programs with this lede:

The Pentagon’s fiscal 2017 budget keeps all its nuclear modernization programs on track, keeping alive concerns from both inside and outside the department about a coming “bow wave” of modernization expenses.

Mehta drew heavily on an excellent summary of the DoD nuclear aspects of the budget by Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association (“Last Obama Budget Goes for Broke on Nuclear Weapons”).

We sent out an informal pre-budget-release “heads-up” (not previously sent to this list) which attempted to outline what we thought would be some interesting issues in the NNSA budget. On Tuesday we hurriedly summarized at least part of what we saw in a press release (which was sent to this list).

Overall spending on nuclear weapons design and production was up of course, and to record heights (see this updated graph). Estimates of near-term future budgets (FY2018-FY2021) were increased somewhat as well. NNSA costs are expected to rise through 2040 (NNSA graph, from 2015).

MOX canceled – hello WIPP

As expected (but dramatic and controversial all the same), NNSA announced it was canceling the Mixed-Oxide (MOX) program for disposing of surplus plutonium (background). (See “Obama Aims to Terminate MOX Project, Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor; Obama plans to scrap MOX plant; SC leaders livid,” The State.)

DOE and NNSA’s preferred plan is now to dilute and dispose underground some 40 metric tons of plutonium (that is: 6 MT of non-pit weapons-grade plutonium (WgPu) that was not part of the MOX plan, plus at least 34 MT of surplus WgPu that was). For the first 6 MT, DOE is about to issue a formal decision to dispose of this material at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). WIPP is also the default location – there is no other – for the other 34 tons of surplus WgPu.

There will be complications but we think this disposal plan is a big improvement over MOX. It is also better than options involving vitrification of high-level waste, for which there is no repository even being proposed at this point.

It is not a public service to endlessly defer the disposal of dangerous wastes. As we and many others have discussed many times (e.g. here), the ability of this society to manage very complex projects having high capital cost is a wasting resource.

We strongly believe “dilute and dispose” is not as good an option, however, as direct disposal of “neutered” or “sterilized” pits. We have not been able to sell this plan very well in Washington – perhaps because it does not involve tens of billions of dollars in costs (= contractor billings). (For some discussion and comparison, see this section of the Red Team report). The details are classified, as Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and leader of the Red Team, reminded us.

The South Carolina delegation may be “livid” but it is difficult to imagine any faction in Congress, or even Congress as a whole, successfully forcing the executive branch and its contractors to build and safely operate, for decades, a very complicated nuclear project, even if the project had technical merit – and this doesn’t.

On the other hand the lawsuit being brought by South Carolina against DOE (see the two articles above) may have merit. It’s certainly true that DOE has failed and is still failing to fulfill its promises to South Carolina.

It is tempting to discuss why we support plutonium disposal a little more, but instead I would like to close this section by bringing up some wider issues.

Many of us opposed MOX when it was first proposed in the 1990s, on all sorts of grounds. It was a boondoggle from the get-go. Why did it have such legs? And why was “plutonium disposition” ever a policy “problem,” requiring tens of billions of dollars in “solutions,” in the first place?

This organization was clear then and I will be clear now: “surplus plutonium disposition,” especially in the United States, was mostly a made-up policy problem that was commandeered for fun and profit by the usual nuclear interests, with today’s rolling fiasco the result. And it is not over yet – far from it.

Leaving all the hard-to-recall details aside (which would make an interesting PhD dissertation), the MOX boondoggle was (and is) a kind of attractive nuisance created and supported by poorly-vetted liberal arms control ideas in and around the Clinton Administration, Congress, Harvard, and some of the large foundations. The MOX program seemed big and visionary enough to grease every wheel that mattered while also distracting a significant fraction of the arms control and funding “community” from disarmament, create beachheads into Russia for purposes good and bad, and so on.

“Dilute and dispose” may take a couple of decades. WIPP will need to be expanded (which appears necessary anyway, since there is no upper bound on the transuranic waste being generated). Can “dilute and dispose” be brought to a successful conclusion? My opinion is: only if DOE and the country as a whole are very lucky. DOE is genetically programmed for boondoggles. The current plan has some characteristics of a “Goldilocks” boondoggle, i.e. one that is “just right,” the previous one being too huge even for DOE. Santa Fe artist Cathie Sullivan once drew a cartoon with two Los Alamos scientists looking out the window. One was saying, “Surely with this nation’s technical resources, the answer needn’t be that obvious.”

The savings in projected costs from the new plan vs. MOX will not go back to the Treasury. As our press release noted, this year’s estimated NNSA outyear spending is somewhat greater than last year’s. NNSA has plenty of programs that can soak up money. Most of them are in Weapons Activities. The money saved from ending the MOX program will be mostly spent in the weapons program.

The module mystery (this section is a little wonky)

As we noted yesterday, there is no construction money for underground plutonium modules in this year’s budget request. Since these modules are not necessary for NNSA’s current plutonium missions, which is itself excessive to say the least, this absence is without question a good thing.

Also as noted, the budget request also stated that the mission need of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) project was entirely satisfied by the four subprojects listed, absent modules. Given that there is still a legal requirement to build modules and a very recent Critical Decision (CD)-0 affirming mission need, what gives?

Yesterday we got some answers. First of all, on Tuesday I missed this passage in NNSA’s budget request:

The increase [in “plutonium sustainment” operating funds: +$10 million, from $175 M to $185 M] funds equipment procurements needed to increase [future] pit production consistent with the FY 2015 NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act], and conceptual planning and design activities for the Plutonium Modular Approach [PMA], partially offset by a decrease resulting from a change in pension strategy. (printed p. 115)

DOE project management allows the use of operating funds for conceptual planning and design of construction projects (see DOE Order 413.3B, p. 13-14). That appears to be what is happening.

Yesterday NNSA explained more in a press briefing. (We owe the following transcripts to the generosity of people at the Albuquerque Journal.) Acting Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Brig. Gen. S.L. Davis:

Under the current capabilities we have in the projects we have going, we’re going to be able to do ten pits in 2024, 20 pits in 2025, and 30 pits in 2026. To get to the 50-80 pits dictated by statute we’d have to do additional construction. In the current budget, we have some money for design of a plutonium capability. We’re currently undergoing an analysis of alternatives to see if that would be, in fact, plutonium modules at Los Alamos or perhaps some other alternatives but at this point there is no money for funding of the major construction item to do that in the current budget. (Emphasis added.)

General Frank Klotz (Ret.), NNSA Administrator said this:

Overall the approach we’re doing to make sure we have the capacity to do the plutonium operations writ-large, and that includes analytical chemistry experiments, as well as surveillance and pit manufacture, we are undergoing several projects basically to move things out of the old chemical and metallurgy facility (CMR) building by repurposing space in PF-4 and repurposing space in RLUOB – the radiation laboratory. We have some significant funding going to subprojects associated with that. We do have money in the FY 17 budget - about 6 million dollars of the plutonium sustainment fund - which will be used for the development of the conceptual design for an analysis alternatives for the additional capacity we need at Los Alamos to do pit manufacturing.

In the out years we have put in 12 million per year for the plutonium modular approach [which is not visible in the document]. We recognize that is not nearly enough money to do that. However, until we go through the analysis of alternatives and until we do our internal and external independent cost estimations and all of the environmental assessments and all the other things that need to be done before we can come up with a realistic estimate in terms of what that will be.

We’ll be back in the FY 18 or 19 budget when we have done all that due diligence and have better figures for that. But we didn’t want to put zero – we wanted to put some money in there (this year) as a marker to indicate we’re serious about that. (Emphasis added.)

So: stay tuned. NNSA is steadily (and stealthily) advancing its underground factory plan, just not at breakneck pace. A new administration and a new LANL contractor will need to vet that plan, when it is more polished. Meanwhile there is plenty of “education” in the broadest sense – fill in the blanks – to be done.

The mountain of misinformation, silence, and confusion in our society is growing

The details you have seen from us in this and the previous Bulletin (not to mention much of the rest of what we do), comprise an attempt to build a small edifice of truth within a conventional system of discourse.

It is incomplete. More than that it lacks context – as does virtually every single analysis of nuclear weapons issues we see in this country, whether it be in the mainstream print media, in the specialized defense-related press, in the even-more-specialized nuclear and energy trade press, in publications of the arms control community, and in academia.

If we can analogize truth to an onion, all these analyses lie in a very superficial layer, which is of course rotten in places.

Even good analyses and proposals which purport to offer a viable path forward will fail if they remain in that superficial layer. Even a decent prioritization of nuclear weapons modernization programs (as is that of Korb and Mount) would result in severe security problems for the U.S., and quite likely fail to prevent the collapse of our society. It’s just not enough. We’re past the time for baby steps. This is not 1990. We don’t have the climate stability we had or the oil, or the cohesion in our society, or the skills. This list could go on. One thing we do have is debt.

Said simply, U.S. nuclear weapons policies need radical change, not minor reforms, if the United States is to survive. We cannot afford a refreshed Cold War – or anything like our present military expenditures. We cannot afford the present hot wars – which we are losing, a necessary and inevitable national humbling which needs to be embraced, and quickly as our follies continue to mount.

We cannot afford Cold War institutions; leaving them intact was and is one of the greatest follies of the arms control community. We cannot afford what our nuclear weapons and associated military policies do to us and do to the rest of the world. In point of fact, they are destroying us. To a great extent they have already succeeded.

The arms control specialists beavering away in DC think tanks cannot be environmentalists. They do not try to understand climate feedbacks. They do not think about energy resources or the relation of oil investments and supplies to our economy. They seem to know nothing about what the U.S. did in the Ukraine, what is happening there now, or what is truly happening in Syria. They work in a bubble, and this is required.

The news media is much the same, for some similar and some different reasons. Despite the best efforts of reporters, the enforced silences on very important subjects, the misinformation imported wholesale, and above all the tyranny of trivial frames of reference and traditional news narratives – harmonized as they are with the prejudices of publishers, politicos, and advertisers – almost always produce more darkness than light.

Most stories about nuclear weapons, or about this or that fiasco or problem at the weapons labs, practically write themselves. To the extent they rehash the standard narratives, they accomplish little or nothing. The meaning and pattern that ought to be apparent after hundreds of similar stories is never stated. The reckoning never happens. The moral is never drawn. Meaning is endlessly deferred. Such stories are as boring as they are paralyzing.

Under these conditions the assumptions underlying the term “press release” (like ours this Tuesday) seem rather quaint and misguided.

We could make a long list of society-destroying myths that can basically never be questioned in mainstream news. Such a list inhabits the whiteboard behind me. Discussing them is a project for another day. These myths, taken together, help refract public discourse into part of what the late Joe Bageant called the “hologram.”

We have now reached the point – and this seems quite new in degree – where our biggest newspapers of record routinely, even daily, print falsehoods about critical subjects such as our oil and gas supplies and our foreign coups d’etat and wars, to pick a few. They maintain a coy silence about existential threats to our civilization. The propaganda with which we are all barraged from the highest and most reputable sources has suddenly become far thicker and more opaque than it has ever been in my lifetime.

The result of all this is that citizens and political leaders alike cannot understand what is happening to our country and the world, and they cannot prioritize their responses. There is mass denial in too many quarters, led by professionals in the news media who do know better, but who do not allow themselves the freedom to think. In some segments of the population there is a kind of mass psychosis, as Dmitri Orlov has discussed, which will lead to fascism if it is not marginalized and defeated. Denial does not, and cannot, accomplish that.

It is necessary now to triage issues, as Helen Caldicott reminded us in a conference last year at the New York Academy of Medicine. How can this be done, with the organs of public consciousness enthralled by the trivial, enslaved to myths that are long past their sell-by dates?

For most of us I think it starts by walking away from our computers, out our front doors and into the streets, into the churches, and the environmental and arms control groups. We all need to talk.

It starts by conversations that lead to actions. Information is not enough. Opinions don’t matter. Participation matters. Make no mistake, mass denial and the growth of social psychosis and tyranny won’t go away by themselves. Confrontation in one form or another is required.

Thank you for reading and mulling over these halting words. I know your time is precious.

Greg Mello, for the Los Alamos Study Group


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