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"Forget the Rest" blog

Whither nuclear weapons policy?

Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group,
(Originally published in Albuquerque Tribune, June 22, 2007) 

This past week the House of Representatives all but completed work on the bill that funds Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear warhead programs. 

With little debate, the House endorsed a spending plan prepared by its Appropriations Committee which would cut warhead programs overall by 6%, halt a major Bush Administration initiative to build new warheads, stop the construction of a new plutonium warhead core (“pit”) factory at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), and cut funding for pit manufacturing by half, among other features. 

LANL, and to a lesser extent Sandia National Laboratories (SNL), would bear the brunt of these cuts, should they become law.  

The detailed House plan redirects funds to be cut from weapons programs toward preventing nuclear proliferation and promoting renewable energy.

In one way or another each member of the New Mexico congressional delegation opposed these shifts.  Senator Bingaman’s concerns were relatively muted.  Senator Domenici and Congresswoman Wilson said, basically, they would cause the sky would fall but took no concrete action.  (Senator Domenici will do his best to restore funding in the Senate, of course.)

Congressman Udall orally opposed the proposed spending plan in committee, and was the sole voice on the 56-person Appropriations Committee to do so.  He did not use his position there to offer any amendment, no doubt knowing he would be isolated and subsequently penalized.  Later, theatrically, Udall offered an amendment on the House floor to restore $192 million in nuclear weapons spending specifically for LANL, but the amendment was defeated as expected by a wide margin. 

The Senate is expected to produce its spending plan this week.  It will be the first Senate nuclear plan since 1994 not produced under Domenici’s chairmanship. 

A third powerful actor this year is the White House, which has said it will veto this bill, primarily because it would spend too much money, especially on non-military priorities like flood control. 

Whither nuclear weapons policy, then?  As three congressional committees this year have noticed, the U.S. has no coherent nuclear policy even now.  It is this very lack of clarity that led the House this week to put the reins on the most expensive and controversial parts of the Bush nuclear agenda. 

It’s dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future (as Yogi Berra said), but here’s one: five years from now there will still be no coherent U.S. nuclear policy.  This is because the underlying contradictions in U.S. nuclear weapons policies – intellectual, military, legal, moral, fiscal, and managerial – run very deep. 

The only policy compatible with nonproliferation treaty commitments, for example, is a commitment to complete nuclear disarmament.  While the American people support our disarmament obligation and consistently choose disarmament above other policies by wide margins in polls, Congress does not.  Not yet, anyway. 

There is, however, a near-consensus on the overall direction of nuclear forces, spending, and infrastructure, which is downward.  For nearly all nuclear decisionmakers these days, “less is more.”  While disagreeing on the details and how best to get there, a wide range of relevant actors, from the far left to the far right, favor a much smaller nuclear arsenal, lower annual expenditures, and a smaller complex of warhead factories and labs. 

Nuclear weapons are not even that popular in the military.  One administration official said to us this winter without a trace of sarcasm that if the military had to pay for nuclear warheads there would not be any. 

Who promotes them, then?  It’s a complex question, but at crucial junctures it has primarily been the three nuclear weapons labs who promote them most – they and the members of Congress associated with them.  It is still that way today, with Senator Pete Domenici in the forefront of all. 

As one Republican appointee said to us, “Why have you come to see me?  The problem with nuclear weapons policy is in your state and his name is Pete Domenici.”

In New Mexico there are serious political, economic, and social consequences from these loyalties.  Senator Domenici’s role in obtaining nuclear pork-barrel spending for New Mexico is now considered so inviolate by New Mexico Democratic Party leaders that they consistently fail to seriously challenge him either rhetorically or electorally.  After all, they too depend on lab employees for political contributions. 

Thus behind the mask of party pluralism, the loyalty of New Mexico political elites to the nuclear labs gives an uncontested Senate seat to the deeply conservative Mr. Domenici for as long as he wants it.  The labs’ influence extends far and wide elsewhere as well.  Through our bipartisan devotion to federal nuclear pork, the labs create a strong right-of-center tug on New Mexico politics overall. 

This strong pull to the political right has profound implications across a wide range of New Mexico issues, especially those bearing on our state’s economic and social performance.  It goes a long way toward explaining why our relative economic performance as a state has fallen in a direct proportion to rising laboratory spending.  As it happens, both trends coincide, more or less, with Mr. Domenici’s Senate tenure.

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