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"Forget the Rest" blog

Warhead Policy at the Crossroads


Earlier this year, a fleet of 25 trucks working at night began removing earth from two excavations at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).  Those excavations are to be the basement floors of two big new plutonium buildings.

If and when they’re built, tunnels will connect them to each other and to the lab’s existing 29-year-old plutonium facility, making a unified production complex for warhead cores – “pits” in bombspeak.

The new kinds of warheads sought by the Bush Administration require new pits – hence the new construction.  Despite its ominous implications, construction is proceeding with neither fanfare nor much visible opposition.  The news media doesn’t report it.  Like most nuclear weapon decisions, it is happening in the dark, far less due to secrecy than inattention.  On the surface at least the setbacks, temporary so far, have been due more to Congressional budgetary hesitation than political or moral opposition.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which nominally oversees LANL and the proposed construction project, isn’t waiting until the paint dries to starting making pits.   Despite an inventory of at least 23,000 pits and a long list of looming safety problems, pit production is slated to begin this year.

If it happens, LANL would produce the first new U.S. pits since 1989.  That summer, numerous environmental and safety problems forced the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, Colorado to close.  Overall warhead production then shut down as well.

Today, making new pits is the pivotal step in making new warheads.  It is also the rate-limiting step: the pit production rate determines the overall rate at which warheads can be made.  The LANL buildings under construction would expand production capacity dramatically, from about 10 pits per year to 50, 100 – or, some say, 200.

NNSA is encountering obstacles, however.  The House Appropriations Committee, first under Republican and now under Democratic management, has opposed construction.  Even some within the NNSA oppose the rush to build.  Project costs have nearly doubled and are still rising.  NNSA’s original plan to build two plutonium complexes—one at LANL now and then a bigger one somewhere else later—now seems infeasible even to the NNSA, even though that is precisely what may happen.

As a result of political and financial limitations, NNSA claims to have temporarily halted construction (but not design) of one of the two buildings proposed for LANL: the so-called “nuclear facility,” which is to be equipped to handle tons of plutonium and is by far the more expensive of the two.  Construction on the other building, the so-called “radiological laboratory,” is going forward at full speed.  It is quite possible, however, that NNSA’s claim to have “delayed” this project is little more than a ploy to mollify angry appropriators.  Time will tell.

In the meantime NNSA is conducting yet another nationwide analysis of where, and how big, to build its new pit factory – or its other new pit factory, depending on what is decided.

All told, there have been about nine plans so far.  Three are still alive.

The imminent resumption of warhead manufacture, and the overall silence in which it is proceeding, speak volumes about the nuclear weapons policy debate.  Namely, there is very little of it.  The weapons, of course, have not disappeared.  They sit quietly, in plain sight.  This silence belies the fact that major choices are being made that may substantially affect global security and jump-start a new round of weapons proliferation.

On the one hand, the U.S. warhead complex is in the midst of a multi-faceted, slow-boiling but very serious crisis.  On the other hand – and in response – NNSA is proposing breath-taking new warhead programs.

How Congress disposes of NNSA’s grandiose proposals, and how the underlying crises of nuclear legitimacy are symbolically and materially resolved, will affect not just U.S. nuclear weapons policy but that of many other countries.

Many signs point to a crisis in the warhead complex.  Projects aren’t being completed on time or on budget, if at all.  When finished, many don’t work as advertised.  In other cases, NNSA loses interest or changes direction.  In hindsight it is clear that many projects weren’t necessary in the first place.  Recruiting and retaining high-end talent and expertise is difficult.  Security woes never seem to end; the cost of protecting the labs and plants just keeps rising.  The military – the “customer” – isn’t terribly interested in the “product,” as a senior LANL weapons designer said last year.  Even President Bush calls nuclear weapons “weapons of mass murder” and “evil.”

Making nuclear weapons requires thousands of coordinated steps.  All are expensive and many are dangerous.  This is very hard to accomplish without enthusiasm, discipline, skill, and social support—all of which are in short supply.  In short, the status, prestige, and perceived security value of nuclear weapons are dropping while the costs in all forms are rising.

In an attempt to solve these problems, NNSA wants to rebuild, more or less completely, both the nuclear arsenal and the warhead complex that sustains it.  If in doubt, surge.

Such a strategy shows a quality of desperation at the root of NNSA’s proposals.  In the face of global condemnation and poor domestic support, the nuclear weapons enterprise seems neither sustainable over the long run nor useful as a geopolitical tool.

Nonetheless, the White House claims nuclear weapons can and should have significant roles in military policy.  New factories and warheads are supposed to make these threats visible and more credible.  This, too, has a desperate tone, sounding more like faith than reason – faith in what historian Gregg Herken called “the winning weapon.”  Neither the White House nor NNSA has yet grasped that nuclear credibility is limited by political and moral factors, not technical ones.

At least half-dozen nuclear policy outcomes hang in the balance.

First, will critics in Congress, NNSA, and civil society halt the construction of new warhead factories at LANL?  Major construction is also occurring at the Y-12 Plant near Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Second, will the needless re-start of U.S. warhead production – including secret provisions for on-demand “small lot builds” of “special” warheads and bombs – be allowed to proceed?  Production is supposed to start this year.  Why?  Roughly 4,000 warheads and bombs are slated for dismantlement by the Bush Administration between now and 2012.  An extra 13,000 or so plutonium pits already lie in storage.  There is no lack of nuclear weapons by any standard, or of the key parts needed to make them.

Restarting weapons production has nothing whatsoever to do with maintaining the stockpile or making a few more high-yield warheads for the submarine fleet.  That fleet has more than a thousand warheads in reserve.  Pit production appears to have everything to do with gearing up to produce new kinds of warheads and bombs for new nuclear missions, just as soon as possible and over the long haul, in small numbers now as well as large campaigns later.

Third, will the NNSA build new “modular” warheads, gradually replacing the entire stockpile, using designs that allow rapid, higher-volume manufacturing and more readily adaptable to new delivery systems and new nuclear missions?  This is the ambitious “Reliable Replacement Warhead” program (RRW), which NNSA hopes will “transform” (read renew, sustain, and motivate) the warhead complex.

Although NNSA denies it up and down, the RRW program aims to produce weapons which are different and more threatening than current ones.  General Cartwright, Commander in Chief of STRATCOM said so plainly before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, when he said the “modularity and interoperability” of RRW “will significantly increase the operational flexibility and responsiveness of the nuclear weapons stockpile and improve our ability to introduce new technologies and respond to technological and/or geopolitical surprise.”

RRW will also significantly increase the danger of expensive and rapid nuclear build up worldwide. All weapons meant to be more “credible” as a deterrent achieve this dubious quality only because the parties involved perceive them to be more usable—a dangerous situation.

Danger is the whole point.  “Credible” weapons by definition spur hostile and protective responses – arms races, with symmetric and asymmetric weapons and tactics, and of course the search by other parties for more “credible” deterrents of their own.

Fourth, will the U.S. warhead complex be rebuilt and modernized – or downsized on a glide path toward disarmament and treaty compliance?  Whether NNSA wants to admit it or not, all options are on the table – including dissolving the NNSA itself.

Fifth, how much money will the U.S. spend on nuclear weapons, particularly in the symbolic “Weapons Activities” NNSA budget line, currently $6.4 billion?  The prestige and power of the nuclear weapons enterprise, both local and national, is closely tied to how much money is being spent.  Declining budgets have an enormous effect.  There is a lot of fat in the nuclear weapons budget.

Sixth, will the Pentagon modify nuclear missiles to “GPS-like” accuracy?  Such capability is being requested this year under the banner of “prompt global strike,” using conventional warheads.  Such programs provide the ability to make very dangerous nuclear weapons on very short notice.  Upgrading a deployed nuclear delivery system to hit a single house on the other side of the world is enormously provocative and dangerous.

What, then, is to be done?

In the very short run, the most damaging and grandiose nuclear proposals of the Bush Administration will likely be defeated, if they are defeated, from within the current nuclear paradigm.  For example, huge amounts of money would be wasted, on the general order of $100 billion, making thousands of RRWs and the factories for them.  Moreover, unless the U.S. chooses to ignite a world-wide round of nuclear testing, RRWs would remain untested.  The RRW program is a gamble, proposed by an agency with a management history akin to the Three Stooges.

We who seek nuclear disarmament have to continue to find creative ways to testify to the fundamental incompatibility of nuclear weapons with human values.  We must do this in a thousand ways and settings, in and through other issues as well as in defense policy debates.  When we do so we win, because the struggle over nuclear weapons is a struggle about values and ideas, not just hardware.

We have facts, values, and the great majority of people (in the US as well as worldwide) on our side—including many nuclear weapons insiders.  The greatest mistake we could make right now in the nuclear weapons arena is to fail to confidently press our many advantages.

Greg Mello is the director of the Los Alamos Study Group. For more information, contact LASG, 2901 Summit Pl. NE, Albuquerque, NM 87106;

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2901 Summit Place NE Albuquerque, NM 87106, Phone: 505-265-1200

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