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"Forget the Rest" blog

It’s time to talk seriously about downsizing
the nuclear warhead complex

Guest column, Greg Mello, Los Alamos Monitor 5/9/07

It is becoming clear to many observers, perhaps to most, that a number of factors extrinsic to the NNSA are shrinking the political and managerial space in which the agency can – and should – operate.

On May 2, the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) issued its mark-up of the administration’s 2008 nuclear weapons budget request.  Their action is a significant departure from the direction being discussed just a few weeks ago. 

With bipartisan unanimity, the subcommittee – led by Ellen Tauscher (whose district includes Livermore) and including Mac Thornberry of Amarillo – cut the administration’s budget request for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) in half.  They also eliminated all funds for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) proposed “Consolidated Plutonium Center,” at least for now. 

The RRW program is meant to be a massive, multi-decade effort to replace all the weapons in the U.S. arsenal, requiring construction of a renewed, “responsive” warhead complex in the process. 

The subcommittee said its actions were partly driven by a desire to slow warhead initiatives to allow time for a “public re-evaluation” of U.S. nuclear policies.  The subcommittee requested such a review and would pay for it with the RRW cuts. 

Theirs is not the last word.  Other committees will soon weigh in.  House Appropriations could be more critical of NNSA programs than the HASC; the Senate might be less so.  All in all it would not be surprising if the HASC mark ends up being close to what Congress passes this year. 

The RRW, which has been NNSA’s “Next Big Thing,” has been losing steam over the past few weeks as lawmakers learn more about it and independent experts weigh in.  The “customer” is equivocal: the Navy told congressional analysts it is perfect happy with the W76 life extension program, which the first RRW is meant to replace. 

One military RRW supporter is General Cartwright of STRATCOM, but candid testimony that the RRW’s “modularity and interoperability” would make it easier to “introduce new technologies and respond to…geopolitical surprise” doesn’t square with NNSA testimony that RRW would provide no new military capabilities. 

Equivocation on RRW also came last month from a panel of composed largely of former nuclear lab directors, weapons complex administrators, and nuclear weapons scientists organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Their finely-parsed report was widely seen as damning the RRW with faint praise, and it undercut some of the program’s main premises. 

The HASC action telegraphs larger congressional concerns.  It is becoming clear to many observers, perhaps to most, that a number of factors extrinsic to the NNSA are shrinking the political and managerial space in which the agency can – and should – operate. 

One of them is the need for effective nonproliferation diplomacy, which rests in turn on what the Declaration of Independence calls “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” 

On January 4 of this year, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, Sam Nunn, and a number of other authors penned a guest editorial in the Wall Street Journal urging the U.S. to adopt the goal of nuclear abolition and to take energetic and concrete actions to achieve it.  They questioned the effectiveness and wisdom of nuclear deterrence and said the perils of proliferation could not be addressed without bold, convincing steps toward disarmament.

These views bring those Cold War hawks quite a ways towards agreement with the Los Alamos Study Group and point toward a possible working policy consensus quite different from Bush Administration policies, which aren’t generating much enthusiasm beyond the Forrestal Building. 

It is possible to disagree with world opinion, but it is not possible for any government, especially ours right now, to ignore it for very long.  World opinion condemns nuclear weapons, just as the great majority of Americans do, in poll after poll.  The very first UN resolution condemns them, and they are condemned again every year by the vast majority of states. 

The International Court of Justice unanimously held that there exists a binding obligation on the U.S. and other nuclear weapon states to completely get rid of their nuclear arsenals. 

I can understand people not agreeing with these views, but as political and legal realities we all must accept them.  Principled disagreement can be healthy; denial never is. 

Even President Bush calls nuclear weapons “weapons of mass murder” and “evil,” just as Ronald Reagan called them "totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization," as George Shultz & Co. remind us.  Political leaders say these things because in doing so they appeal to universal, bedrock human values. 

Those values comprise a reality we can’t ignore, even if we wanted to – which we don’t!

We don’t have space to talk about some of the other constraining realities NNSA is facing.  These include: fiscal limitations; practical limits to security against external and internal threats; the difficulty of transmitting skills, discipline, and culture to new generations of skilled technicians; maintaining morale in the absence of wider social support; and serious questions about the long-term ability of the warhead complex to function outside a “heroic” paradigm that denies the safety and environmental awareness expected in the rest of society.

The time has come to talk seriously about prudently downsizing the nuclear warhead complex, including LANL, without building the new factories that will cause outrage at home and abroad. 

(Next time: how this might be done)

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