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"Forget the Rest" blog



Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Arms Treaty Rains Dollars

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer      

There was a moment last Wednesday morning when the politics of the New START treaty slipped into theater of the absurd.
The treaty, to limit U.S. and Russian stockpiles of the most fearsome weapons ever devised by humanity, hung in the balance. And there on the floor of the U.S. Senate was Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., complaining about a leaky Los Alamos National Laboratory roof.
"The roof is so bad the work we have to do in there is affected by the weather," Kyl said.
Kyl was in the midst of his closing pitch on a deal over future U.S. nuclear weapons funding. The roof atop the lab's Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building was a metaphor for aging U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure, a theatrical prop at the heart of an $85 billion deal.
The deal appears to ensure a growing stream of funding for Los Alamos and Sandia labs in New Mexico, along with six other nuclear weapons research and production sites around the country. The current price tag is set at $85 billion over 10 years, with escalator clauses in the treaty's resolution of approval to let it grow.
But the deal was made without questions about management problems and cost overruns that have long plagued the nuclear weapons program.
In the short term, the deal ensures money to keep patching up the old CMR building, now 58 years old and well past its "best used by" date. Nuclear weapons scientists analyze plutonium samples in a building long ago labeled unsafe by federal nuclear auditors.
In the long term, there will be money — quite a lot, it appears — to build a replacement.
At this point, in the topsy-turvy politics of Washington, where a deal became the most important thing and damn the details, money appears to have been no object.
President Barack Obama, in a letter to Republican senators on the eve of the treaty vote, promised to go beyond the one-year, 10 percent nuclear weapons budget hike in his most recent spending request: "I recognize that nuclear modernization requires investment for the long-term, in addition to this one-year budget increase. That is my commitment to the Congress — that my administration will pursue these programs and capabilities for as long as I am president."
Kyl's colloquy on CMR's leaky roof was accompanied by amended language in the treaty's Senate resolution calling for annual reports on the nuclear modernization program, including how the government will address rising costs beyond the current spending plan.
Never mind that Kyl's amendment language appears not to be legally binding. Its unanimous Senate approval appeared to be enough to lure the last few Republican votes needed for treaty passage.
In the process, it also appears to have locked us on a path to building a replacement for CMR, never mind the cost to U.S. taxpayers. And that cost could be considerable.
In a report to Congress last month, the National Nuclear Security Administration revealed the building could cost between $3.7 billion and $5.8 billion — four to seven times as much as officials thought just three years ago.
The politics surrounding those numbers are a puzzle.
With a few exceptions, political conservatives who can normally be counted on to question expensive, over-budget, behind-schedule government programs give defense a pass.
Arms control liberals are usually the ones out in front pointing to nuclear program cost overruns. But they have largely been silent on this one, so eager were they to win support for the treaty.
In a world of reasoned governance, such dramatically rising cost estimates would be cause for re-evaluation. Why has the cost risen so much? What is it we need to do in this building? Should our ambitions be scaled back? Could it be accomplished for less? Or not done at all?
But the political convergence under way as the latest estimate was released in the run-up to the Senate's New START vote ensured that no such questions would be asked. Reasoned governance was focused elsewhere, and it almost seemed as though the rising cost estimates for CMR's replacement were a good thing.
The deal has created a political dynamic in which rising costs for the Los Alamos project, and a similar effort in Tennessee, will be difficult now to question, however legitimate the concerns. They have become, in the words of one expert I talked to, a sort of "too big to fail" moral hazard.
More money? No problem. Where's the checkbook?

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