LASG header
Follow TrishABQ on Twitter Follow us
"Forget the Rest" blog


For immediate release September 16, 2012 (Revision 1)

Washington Post Misleads in Major Article Addressing Nuclear Weapons Complex

Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200

Our comments on this article follow.


Aging U.S. nuclear arsenal slated for costly and long-delayed modernization

By Dana Priest, Published: September 15, 2012

Study Group comments are in black.  Original article text is indented and in green.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal, the most powerful but indiscriminate class of weapons ever created, is set to undergo the costliest overhaul in its history, even as the military faces spending cuts to its conventional arms programs at a time of fiscal crisis.

The lead sentence and balance of the article give the false impression that this overhaul – of warheads, industrial plant, and delivery systems – has yet to begin.  This mischaracterizes the situation.  In fact, for warheads and for the industrial plant which designs and produces them, the overhaul has been well-underway for many years.  Modifications to ICBM-based delivery systems also have been extensive and expensive.

What are nuclear weapons?  Nuclear weapons consist of launch platforms, delivery systems, the warheads and bombs containing nuclear explosives and other parts, as well as the command, communications, control, targeting, and administrative systems that make these subsystems work together.  All these nuclear weapons components are continuously maintained and occasionally upgraded as needed.  Contrary to the impression given by this article, there is nothing about the U.S. nuclear deterrent that is about to “wear out.”  The warheads and bombs in particular – the focus of this article – do not “wear out” because they undergo periodic maintenance and upgrade programs of varying intrusiveness, roughly on an as-needed basis.
The one component of the U.S. nuclear arsenal that will “wear out,” and which will do so more or less on a succession of dates certain, are nuclear submarines.

The most intrusive warhead and bomb modifications are called “life extension programs” (LEPs), which are akin to a “complete factory overhaul.”  After each LEP, the warhead or bomb in question is generally expected to last another 30 years before another LEP is needed, although there may be exceptions.

The B61-7 and B61-11 gravity bombs as well as the W87 warhead already have been LEPed.  The W76 warhead, by far most numerous warhead in the arsenal, is in the midst of LEP production.  As the next article in the series will discuss in depth, NNSA proposes to replace the B61-3, B61-4, B61-10, B61-7, and B61-11with a new B61-12 bomb, to be created in a sort of “super-LEP,” which is to be finished prior to completion of any major new production facilities discussed in this article and which does not rely on new plutonium components in any case.

The W78 and W88 warheads remain to be LEPed, and no decision has been made as to how intrusive this project needs to be.  A new common warhead based on the W87 is the commonly-mentioned alternative.

No decision has been made about whether to retain nuclear-armed cruise missiles or whether to retain the B83 gravity bomb.

Thus the first round of LEPs is approximately half done, and will be mostly done by the time any new production plants could come on line.  This article gives the impression that all the work lies ahead.

The industrial plant and nuclear laboratories have also been, with important exceptions, maintained and upgraded as needed.  It is this physical plant that is producing the LEPed warheads.  As noted, by the earliest date on which the two most expensive building upgrades could be produced, nearly all the stockpile will have been recently LEPed.   Among the many questions NNSA planners and budgeters face is how to estimate the production capacity needed that will be needed in the weapons complex in the distant future, after the first round of LEPs.

Construction of new facilities would cut into LEP budgets and could require heavy layoffs at the nuclear weapons laboratories.  Many observers in government do not believe NNSA can manage more than one very large weapons production plant project at one time; the money is certainly not there.

In the case of plutonium warhead cores (“pits”), the design and production of which is the primary purpose of increasing capacity of plutonium facilities at Los Alamos, only the W78/88 replacement warhead and any new cruise missile warhead may involve new pits.  No design has been approved.  At present, there is no approved pit production mission at LANL; requirements for the required pit production capacity depend on stockpile size and configuration, as well as the design of future LEPs, and have not yet been set.

For two decades, U.S. administrations have confronted the decrepit, neglected state of the aging nuclear weapons complex.

This is grossly inaccurate and misleading.  Some buildings are new, replacing others that have been torn down.  Most buildings have been properly maintained and are quite serviceable as they are.  A few are being intentionally neglected (“run to failure”), sometimes because replacements are planned and sometimes because of bad decisions by senior management.  Across the complex, hundreds of buildings are simply not needed, or are grossly oversized for their current missions, or have been adapted for new uses – which may or may not be important.  Some buildings have been the subject of major upgrades already.
In general, buildings do not wear out unless they are not properly maintained.  Where equipment becomes obsolete, it can be and usually is replaced.  Building 9212 at the Y-12 site is indeed mission-critical and decrepit, but the appropriate timing, scale, and capabilities of its proposed replacement are far from clear and a raging battle is underway as to whether the full scope of NNSA’s ambitions are affordable or necessary. 

In any case, the nuclear weapons complex, with only a few exceptions, is neither decrepit nor neglected.

Yet officials have repeatedly put off sinking huge sums into projects that receive little public recognition, driving up the costs even further.

It is misleading to give the impression that officials have avoided maintenance and upgrades of the weapons complex.  Most necessary maintenance and upgrades have been done, along with some new construction (e.g. a new factory at Kansas City) that we at the Study Group and others do not think had to be done. 

The impression that delay per se drives up costs is misleading and wrong.  The interesting question is what institutional and governance factors are at work during these delays to drive up costs so much faster than other construction projects in our society.  And why, if these projects were so necessary as proposed, have they been delayed for decades?  This article has not applied due diligence to these questions.

Now, as the nation struggles to emerge from the worst recession of the postwar era and Congress faces an end-of-year deadline to avoid $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts to the federal budget over 10 years, the Obama administration is overseeing the gargantuan task of modernizing the nuclear arsenal to keep it safe and reliable.

The question of safety is not germane. The arsenal is not getting unsafe in any way. Neither is it getting less reliable. This sentence is completely misleading. The arsenal could become unreliable in the future, but only on a schedule which is encompassed by today’s programs.

There is no official price tag for the effort to upgrade and maintain the 5,113 warheads in the inventory, to replace old delivery systems and to renovate the aging facilities where nuclear work is performed.

Not all of these warheads will be maintained and upgraded, not all these old delivery systems will be replaced, and not all the aging facilities will be, or need to be, renovated or replaced. That is why there is no official price tag. The answer “depends” – on many things, and tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars rides on the choices that are made.

A study this summer by the nonpartisan Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, estimated costs would be at least $352 billion over the coming decade to operate and modernize the current arsenal. Others say the figure could be far higher, particularly if the work is delayed even longer.

Yes, and the NNSA component of the cost could be much lower too, if that agency were well-managed.

This article makes frequent use of rumor to make points, a poor journalistic device. Who are these “others” who are quoted as authorities? In fact there are still “others” also say that operating and modernizing the arsenal need not, should not, and in the final analysis cannot, cost that much.

The timing does not fit with the nation’s evolving defense posture, either. Over the past decade, the U.S. military has moved away from nuclear deterrence and major military interventions in favor of more precise tactics rooted in Special Operations forces and quick tactical strikes deemed more effective against today’s enemies.

Federal officials and many outside analysts are nonetheless convinced that, after years of delay, the government must invest huge sums if it is to maintain the air, sea and land nuclear triad on which the country has relied since the start of the Cold War. Failing to act before the end of next year, they say, is likely to mean that there won’t be enough time to design and build the new systems that would be required if the old arsenal is no longer safe or reliable.  (emphasis added)

In many ways the bolded sentence is the “money quote” in this article, as it is aimed directly at the current appropriations process.  It makes a very major claim – one which is not made by any cognizant official who has testified before Congress – and it offers no authority whatsoever to back up what the article describes as a major threat to U.S. national security.

And again we see the device of the unnamed “outside analysts,” who join the anonymous “federal officials” in making this claim.

As noted above, safety and reliability are simply not in question.  Ohio-class submarines do indeed “wear out” as their built-in reactor cores age.  There are fixes and life-extensions for everything else.  There is no near-term need to  design or to build “new systems,” if by “new systems” is meant new warheads and bombs, new ICBMs, or new bombers.  There is no need to design new warheads and bombs in particular, ever.

There have not been, as noted above, “years of delay.”

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I haven’t seen a moment like this,” Thomas P. D’Agostino, who leads the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the federal agency charged with managing the safety of the nuclear arsenal, said in an interview.

Mr. D’Agostino has not been “doing this” – having any overview or responsibility for the nuclear complex – for 20 years.  His resume includes 20 years of nuclear weapons responsibility only if his shipboard time is included.  Mr. D’Agostino is by all accounts a fine public servant but he came to his job with little or no experience managing civilian nuclear weapons enterprises.

The debate over the future of the nation’s nuclear arsenal is playing out in Congress and within the administration. Public reports, interviews with government officials and outside experts and visits to nuclear facilities rarely seen by outsiders provided a portrait of the scope and cost of maintaining and refurbishing the nuclear stockpile underlying the debate.

Expense has loomed for years

At the heart of the overhaul are the weapons themselves. Renovating nuclear bombs and missiles to keep them safe and ready for use will cost tens of billions of dollars.

Like most of this article, everything is mushed together here in a misleading manner.  Renovation has in any case nothing to do with keeping nuclear weapons safe.

Upgrading just one of the seven types of weapons in the stockpile, the B61 bomb, is likely to cost $10 billion over five years, according to the Pentagon. The next two types of bombs in line for modification are estimated to cost a total of at least $5 billion. By comparison, the operating budget for Fairfax County government next year will cost about $3.5 billion, including its vaunted school system.

Replacing the aircraft, submarines and ground-launch systems that carry nuclear payloads will be the most expensive budget item. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated it would cost up to $110 billion to build 12 replacements for the aging Ohio-class submarines first launched in the 1980s. The Minuteman III ballistic missiles are undergoing a $7 billion upgrade even as a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles is under consideration. Meanwhile, a nuclear-capable fleet of F-35 strike aircraft is being built to replace existing aircraft at a cost of $162 million an airplane.

Finally, there are the buildings and laboratories where the refurbishment of weapons and development of new technologies take place. Modernizing those facilities is expected to cost at least $88 billion over 10 years, according to the NNSA, which is part of the Department of Energy.

This $88 billion is the cost for operating, maintaining, and modernizing these facilities – for the programs as well as the plant.  Modernizing facilities is a significant but small part of this cost.

The need to spend heavily to modernize the nation’s shrinking nuclear stockpile has been apparent for at least two decades.

This highly questionable statement is presented as a fact.  It is very far from that.  There has been a debate about how much modernization to do as well as what it should cost.  Budgets have indeed risen markedly, but the meaning of and need for “modernization” per se is unclear and debated.  Last year Brent Scowcroft said in congressional testimony,

I did not use the term ‘‘modernization’’ in my comments. I said safe, reliable, assurance. Modernization for the sake of modernization, in light of the comments that Senator Lugar has made about the overall defense budget, is a separate question. Some things need to be modernized in order to be safe, secure, and reliable. Other things do not need to be. And I would not put modernization itself as a key to what we need to do. We need to be assured that the system will work the way we want it to work.

The article continues:

President George H.W. Bush reduced the stockpile by nearly 40 percent and imposed a ban on nuclear testing. President Bill Clinton extended the ban while reaffirming the importance of maintaining the arsenal’s safety and performance.

President George W. Bush came into office in 2001 planning to shrink and modernize the vast and deteriorating nuclear complex.

Again a false statement.  President George W. Bush had no intention of shrinking the nuclear weapons complex.  Quite the reverse.  And again we hear that the weapons complex was “deteriorating.”  In fact, over the previous six (Clinton) years, weapons complex budgets rose in real terms about 7% per year.  Billions of those dollars were spent on infrastructure. 

Since 1996, DOE and NNSA spent $114 billion (in constant 2012 dollars) on the nuclear weapons complex.  From 1995 to today, annual nuclear weapons complex budgets have risen by $2.66 billion in real dollar terms, a 38% increase in real terms, which is 2% real growth (above inflation) per year.  Spending on nuclear weapons design, testing, and production (not including the nuclear material production which is not occurring today) is now more than it was during the Cold War in real dollar terms ($7.21 B now vs. an average of $5.02 B, in 2012 dollars, from 1948 to 1989, which is 44% more).

Although he cut the stockpile by almost 50 percent and made some progress on renovating the complex, the effort was largely derailed by the costs and complications of two wars.

The “effort” of “renovating the complex” is mischaracterized and was not derailed by two wars.  Was the proposed construction of a huge new factory to produce nuclear warhead pits, so that the entire nuclear arsenal could be replaced with new designs by 2011, some kind of “renovation?”  That effort and others neoconservative ambitions collapsed from their own grandiosity, killed by as much by budget hawks as by the shocked reaction of mainline military conservatives and the centrist foreign policy community.   The “two wars” had nothing to do with congressional decisions to defund radical Bush nuclear weapons initiatives, one after another.  These were defunded and defeated precisely because they were not merely “renovation,” but ambitious expansions.   And some of these ambitious expansions, like the now-deferred CMRR-NF project at Los Alamos, have been only recently succumbed to reality-based planning.

All the while, the backlog of urgent repairs accumulated, and the hidden costs increased steadily.

There is no evidence of this.  It may be true for Building 9212, but simply isn’t true in any other case I know of, or true overall.  What evidence is there that “hidden costs” increased?  Why would they do that?  By definition, real (inflation-corrected) costs do not increase except for some reasons which are unique to the case at hand.  It would have been a journalistic service to examine or explore those reasons.

To catch up, the Obama administration’s budget for refurbishing the nuclear stockpile went from $6.4 billion in 2010 to a $7.5 billion request for next year — a 17 percent increase at a time of budget constraints. To help pay the bills, this year the Defense Department agreed for the first time to contribute $8 billion over five years.

“We came in thinking it had been taken care of and were shocked to hear how poorly it had been treated,” said Jon Wolfsthal, who worked on nuclear weapons issues for the Obama White House until March.

“It” apparently refers to the nuclear weapons complex, rather than the arsenal, which is the subject of formal annual assessments, precisely to avoid any such surprises.

While the administration was surprised by the state of the stockpile, the decision to spend heavily on modernization was also driven by a deal cut with Senate Republicans in late 2010.

Another blatantly false statement.  The Administration was not surprised by “the state of the stockpile.”  As stated, the stockpile is subject to formal annual assessments.  Its current safety and reliability are not in question, as General Kehler (CINCSTRAT) has testified.

As part of negotiations to win ratification of the New START accord and reduce the nuclear weapons maintained by the United States and Russia, the administration agreed to increase money for modernizing the nuclear-weapons complex. Some Republicans say the administration isn’t spending enough.

Los Alamos in disrepair

Situated on a remote mesa in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, Los Alamos National Laboratory was built secretly in early 1943 for the sole purpose of designing and building America’s first atomic bomb. In the decades since, the lab has emerged as one of the nation’s premier nuclear weapons design and research facilities, with 11,000 employees.

But parts of Los Alamos are in serious disrepair. Inside one critical building, pipes carrying dangerous wastewater are duct-taped together at the joints to plug leaks; plastic bags have been wrapped around the tape to trap seepage.

Is this building “critical?”  It is more than half abandoned by design, that space having been declared surplus in the mid-1990s, prior to discovery of the fault.  Its maintenance is admittedly and intentionally being neglected as remaining missions are being transferred out.  Fewer than 100 people now work in this building and most of these are scheduled to leave for RLUOB and PF-4 soon – unless LANL succeeds in unnecessarily keeping this facility open.  One small program is slated to continue until 2019 in part of one wing (the newest and strongest wing, Wing 9).

The building, called Wing 5, is part of the 50-year-old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research plant, which performs research on plutonium cores, the explosive “pits” for nuclear weapons. Sometimes liquid accidentally splashes under the ill-fitting doors and spills into the hallway, Bret Knapp, who heads the lab’s weapons program, said during a rare visit by an outsider. When a spill occurs, the building must be evacuated until inspectors can make sure that the liquid is not radioactive.

Wing 5 is has not been well-maintained because it work in it is being transferred elsewhere, or at least was at last ken.  No incidents of worker contamination or other safety problems in Wing 5 have come to light in recent years.

On other occasions, when the lights in the dilapidated structure flicker, electricians struggling to restore power pry open dozens of fuse boxes and expose brittle wiring far out of compliance with modern building codes.

Again, this facility has been intentionally not upgraded.

The aging facility was slated for replacement 20 years ago.

Twenty years ago, this facility was slated for upgrading, not replacement.

But in 1998, designers identified a fault line beneath the structure. The discovery pushed the price of reconstruction so high that no administration was willing to sign off. The Obama administration says safety requires its replacement — at a cost of $6 billion.

This is precisely wrong.  The Administration says the new plant (CMRR-NF) is unnecessary for the time being, or perhaps permanently unnecessary.  Further study of requirements is required, the Administration says.  This is the view of NNSA, the National Security Council, OMB, DoD, STRATCOM, and DOE – in short, the entire cognizant national security apparatus.  To these voices we can add that of LANL Director Charles McMillan, who joined Administration figures in a classified congressional briefing supporting the new non-CMRR-NF strategy (“Plan B”) in August.

Critics in Congress and among anti-nuclear groups, however, say the expensive new plant is unnecessary and would still present environmental dangers if built on the fault line.

Again, this is the Administration’s view.  It is the view of Tom D’Agostino, whom the article quotes.

The metallurgy facility at Los Alamos isn’t even the most pressing example of neglect and deterioration among the 40 buildings nationwide that the NNSA says need repair. That dubious honor goes to Building 9212, a uranium-processing facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex near Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Known in its heyday as the “Secret City,” Y-12 produced highly enriched uranium for “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Today, Y-12 is the primary facility for processing and storing weapons-grade uranium and developing related technologies.

The 150-acre complex was in the news in late July when three peace activists, including an 82-year-old nun, cut the outer security fence, slipped past the perimeter and reached a building where highly enriched uranium is stored. They splashed blood on the outer walls and carried banners denouncing nuclear weapons. Though they never got inside the facility, the incident sparked a two-week shutdown at the plant and a security review across the nuclear complex. Several officials have been fired or reassigned.

Nearby is Building 9212. Protected by layers of razor wire two stories high and monitored by surveillance cameras and motion sensors, technicians inside process enriched uranium for civilian and naval nuclear reactors. Armed guards greet the few authorized visitors allowed into the structure.

The operations inside Building 9212 are deemed so vital that an unplanned shutdown could cause critical problems across the nuclear supply chain.

“Critical problems across the nuclear [weapons] supply chain” – what does this alarming-sounding phrase actually mean?

An extended stoppage would disrupt the weapons safety work and could force the closing of domestic and foreign civilian reactors that rely on low-enriched uranium from the facility, according to the NNSA.

No “weapons safety work” would be interrupted.  The LEP program would be interrupted, but this should not be characterized as “weapons safety work.”  Nuclear weapons almost always fail toward safety, not danger.  There are no weapon safety problems which the LEP program is remedying.

No reporter had been allowed inside Building 9212 before The Washington Post’s visit. Because of the radioactivity, visitors and workers must wear multiple pairs of yellow rubber gloves, socks and booties, an overcoat, goggles, a head covering and thermoluminescent dosimeters that measure possible radiation exposure.

Conditions inside belie the significance of the work and the danger of the radioactive material.

The building is made of clay tile and cinder blocks and looks its age. Darrel Kohlhorst, the general manager at the time, pointed out large patches of rust and corrosion on interior walls. He said the walls and roof leak when it rains.

“If water hits the floor, we treat it like a contaminated spill,” he said, adding that workers must mop the floors three times a day — and incinerate the mop heads afterward.

The floors themselves are stainless-steel panels bolted together at thick seams. With age, they have become uneven and warped. Control panels resemble props on a 1950s sci-fi movie set, with oversize black-and-white dials and big red “start” and “stop” buttons.

Plant officials said the outdated equipment has not caused a major safety problem only because they halt operations even when minor things go wrong. For instance, when one of the giant, half-century-old exhaust fans goes on the blink, the repair time idles 30 people “for a $15 part,” said Daniel Hoag, then deputy manager of Y-12. Two years ago, the vacuum system that keeps air flowing broke down, and the facility was closed for two weeks.

Nuclear experts say the building should have been replaced years ago. But successive administrations decided to fund less costly renovations and purely scientific endeavors instead. In the meantime, the replacement cost has risen from $600 million in 2004 to $6.5 billion today.

The subsequent discussion begins to unravel the mystery of just how projected costs could rise by a factor of ten, but doesn’t go very far.

Explaining the huge increase, NNSA spokesman Joshua McConaha said that initial cost estimates are always “speculative” and that final figures can’t be determined until most of the design work is finished.

Why, then, are huge projects continually funded on the basis of admittedly “speculative” costs?  Why does NNSA submit “speculative” costs to Congress?  Experience has shown that not only the cost, but also the need and the design of the projects are also “speculative.”

Other factors push up costs. These nuclear facilities are one-of-a-kind plants, and the expertise and equipment needed to build them often doesn’t exist anymore, so it has to be invented.

“We’re facing questions that have never been asked or answered, and we’re doing it 20 years after the urgency of the Cold War,” McConaha said. “We’re building rare, incredibly complex nuclear facilities that nobody has had to build in decades.”

Some 640 people are designing the new uranium processing plant at Y-12. It will use 10 experimental technologies still being invented. There will be elaborate air filtration systems, duplicative electrical and fire control systems, redundant security barriers, earthquake-proof concrete floors and impenetrable vaults — all required to maintain and work with highly radioactive material.

The construction requirements for new nuclear facilities can be seen not far from the 9212 site. The storage facility for highly enriched uranium where the July break-in occurred was completed in 2010 with 90,000 square feet of concrete. Its walls are 30 feet thick and two stories tall, with hidden gun ports. Inside the concrete box, every scrap of radioactive waste is carried to its eventual tomb by a series of mechanical arms and lifts requiring no human touch. Databases and computers track every trace of radioactive material continuously in this paperless, sterile world.

Chronic poor planning

Much of the blame for the soaring costs has fallen on the National Nuclear Security Administration, the division of the Department of Energy responsible for managing and modernizing the nuclear stockpile. For years, the Government Accountability Office, the Pentagon and some lawmakers have cited the NNSA for chronic poor planning and bad management. The GAO has had the NNSA on its “high-risk list” for fraud, waste and abuse in contracting and management since 1990.

Government reports show that the NNSA has blown budgets across the board. For instance, the projected cost of a new weapons conversion facility at the DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina rose to $5 billion from $1.4 billion. It was eventually scrapped — after $700 million in planning costs. The cost of building a new fuel fabrication facility at Savannah River also has tripled to $5 billion, and it is scheduled to open in 2016, a decade late.

The George W. Bush administration’s solution to NNSA’s chronic problems was to transfer management of the national laboratories to profit-making corporations in 2008. Privatization was supposed to cut costs and boost efficiency, but GAO investigators and lawmakers say it is not clear that either has happened.

One concern is unexplained increases in administrative costs, which have reached about 40 percent of the labs’ budget, according to figures provided by NNSA. In fact, the annual contracts to run the facilities are among the largest in government — nearly $2.6 billion a year to operate Los Alamos and $2.4 billion for Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.

The Defense Department became so alarmed by NNSA’s construction record that it recently embedded a team at the agency to examine books and management practices and come up with more realistic cost figures for projects under consideration.

Republicans say they support increased spending on the nuclear arsenal, but last year they were unable to muster the votes to fund the president’s entire budget request.

It should be mentioned that Republicans, with a majority in the House, failed to introduce a floor amendment to the Energy and Water Appropriations bill to raise spending on nuclear warheads or build the now-deferred CMRR-NF.  They did not have the votes in their own party.  So to say “Republicans…support increased spending on the nuclear arsenal” is not exactly accurate.  More accurately, some Republicans, especially but those who do not have budgetary or appropriations responsibility, support increased spending on the nuclear arsenal.

Some worry, though, that costs are out of hand. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces, said the NNSA management approach “perpetuates the status quo mentality that everything nuclear has to be expensive.”

Nuclear Posture Review

In an April 2009 speech, President Obama outlined his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Acknowledging that his goal might not be accomplished in his lifetime, Obama laid out an agenda for forging new partnerships to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, ending production of fissile material for weapons and ratifying new treaties to reduce their numbers.

Since then, though, the president has taken few steps to implement his objective. On the contrary, his 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which lays out the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy, promised to maintain the triad of nuclear weapons favored by every president since Dwight Eisenhower.

In December 2010, the Senate approved ratification of the New START accord with Russia, which limits both sides to 1,550 warheads. But no progress has been made on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would curb development of new nuclear weapons and impose a permanent ban on nuclear tests by signatories.

Over the past year, the president has been calculating his next nuclear step. Civilian and military advisers have presented him with countless options as he sets more precise guidelines that military planners will translate into intricate targeting plans.

The White House declined to comment on the president’s strategic direction, but some government officials and outside experts said they believe he favors renewed talks with the Russians to drop the warhead total from 1,550 to 1,100. Few, however, expect any announcement until after the presidential election in November.

All of the president’s decisions, from the broad nuclear structure to the number of warheads and the top-secret target list, cascade through the nuclear establishment, affecting the types of weapons and delivery systems that must be available to meet the objectives.

For their part, many anti-nuclear activists favor disarmament by atrophy, which would mean not repairing or extending the life span of the current arsenal.

This is absurd.  We know of no anti-nuclear activists who favor disarmament by atrophy.  In our own case (the Los Alamos Study Group), we believe we offer practical management alternatives which will maintain the arsenal better than NNSA’s program, which is failing, while at the same time our proposals position the country better for disarmament.  We believe sound management and good government facilitate disarmament.  Virtually all parties agree that NNSA is currently choosing and managing its projects poorly.

For now, the administration and its supporters argue that the country must maintain its nuclear assets as long as other nations are nuclear-armed.

Still, a growing number of former senior administration officials from both parties argue that more substantial cuts would encourage nonnuclear states to abandon their nuclear ambitions, making the world safer from political miscalculations and saving money for defense items that are actually used.

Among the members of this eclectic group are former Reagan administration officials George Shultz, Robert “Bud” McFarlane and Frank Carlucci; Clinton’s former defense secretary William Perry and ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering; and retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Obama and a former commander of U.S. nuclear forces.

“There are a growing number of my peers on the uniformed military side, and especially among civilian analysts and those on the policy side,” who believe a smaller and more modern force is appropriate, Cartwright said in an interview. “What we have is way more than what we need.”

Spending limits

The nuclear arsenal has not entirely escaped cuts.

What is referred to here is budget cuts, not arsenal cuts.  And yes, it has escaped those cuts.  Spending on nuclear weapons has increased every year under Obama.  There have been cuts from promised future spending levels, but not absolute budget cuts.   Those promises were excessive and have not been sustained by either the Republican-controlled House or Democratically-controlled Senate.

To comply with the new Budget Control Act spending limits, the NNSA decided this year that it could not afford to replace both the crumbling plutonium testing facility at Los Alamos for $6 billion and the deteriorating uranium processing facility in Building 9212 at Oak Ridge for $6.5 billion.

This is not a budget cut.  A project was indefinitely deferred, because NNSA discovered it was not needed for the foreseeable future – not until 2028, according to NNSA testimony.

The NNSA chose to rehab Building 9212 because there was no alternative site where the critical work carried out there could be performed.

So, after 250 contractors moved into Los Alamos last year and tractors dug out 160,000 cubic feet of volcanic tuff rock from the side of a hill, NNSA and the administration decided that building a new plutonium-testing site would be delayed five years. The crews stopped work. The tractors were idled. A new reality sank in.

This is fanciful to fallacious.  These contractors didn’t move to Los Alamos last year – there were this many and more working by the fall of 2010, plus others at other locations, notably Chicago.  Many of those at Los Alamos now have been transferred to other projects.  There was no excavation last year.  The last excavation at the CMRR-NF site was in early 2006.

That new reality means some of the plutonium will be shipped to other facilities. Every couple of days, a UPS truck will deliver a dime-size slice of plutonium to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 45 miles east of San Francisco. Larger quantities of plutonium will be carried by secure vans to the Nevada National Security Site northwest of Las Vegas. Plutonium remaining at Los Alamos will be hand-delivered via an underground tunnel from one building to another.

Plutonium has always been hand-delivered at Los Alamos.  How else should it done?

The tunnel is being upgraded, and renovations are underway at Livermore and the Nevada site to handle the plutonium. Officials estimate the changes in the three locations will cost an additional $650 million over the next five years.

There is no tunnel to upgrade.  There are one or more pieces of a tunnel.  Designing a 1000-foot tunnel is expected to require about $20 million, construction another $120 million.  It is not clear that a tunnel is necessary. 

“Officials” have not made that estimate.  There is as yet no official estimate.  That estimate is being offered by the Los Alamos site contractor, the one who will profit from the work.  There is no bidding process.  The Los Alamos figures are being reviewed.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

© The Washington Post Company

^ back to top

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

home page calendar contact contribute