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La Jicarita

Arms Around the Bomb: Why is New Mexico Still Wedded to Nuclear Weapons?

Posted by La Jicarita, January 23, 2014


The Omnibus Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2014 that passed rapidly through Congress last week funds the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Weapons Activities in the amount of $7.781 billion for the year, an increase of 11.6 percent over the current level but 5.7 percent below the $8.159 billion that NNSA had requested last April.

Included are several key projects for New Mexico, mainly modernization of the B61 bomb, to be designed by Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories, and production of the plutonium cores of thermonuclear weapons, also known as pits.

There was some hope that funding for the B61 would be considerably reduced, but New Mexico Senator Tom Udall (D), who is on the Senate Appropriations Committee, fought hard to keep it.

On Tuesday, January 14, the Senator gave a brief press conference celebrating his success on behalf of New Mexico’s interests, which were almost entirely military. In particular, he went to bat for the B61 program, which the other members of the Senate Appropriations Committee for Energy and Water, especially its chairperson, Senator Feinstein, had been inclined to slash.

The B61 program, intended to produce 400 bombs, is expected to cost $10 to $12 billion over ten years. It modernizes the design of a much older weapon that is based principally in Europe as a line of defense against potential adversaries to the East, including Iran, Russia, and China. European governments are divided about its usefulness, but the American defense establishment typically refers to U.S. responsibility to provide this nuclear umbrella for the region as a type of nonproliferation strategy; that is, were we not to do this, the European nations might feel compelled to produce their own nuclear weapons for their security. The modernized B61 will disperse less fallout from the explosion and will be more accurate, due to the addition of a tail to guide it to the target. The bombs will be dropped from planes like the big budget F35 (estimated to cost $250 million each), but thus far there are no [sic - immediate] plans by the Air Force to adapt that unwieldy aircraft to nuclear use.

The B61 has been promoted as a substitute for another old bomb, the B83, which is the largest and last of the huge old thermonuclear weapons. The pitch is that the B61 will enable the Defense Department to relinquish the B83, implying that the B61 modernization program actually supports the U.S. commitment to reduce its nuclear arsenal under the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970, which prohibits the creation of new weapons.

Modernization of existing weapons — to keep them “safe, secure and accurate,” as defense policy repeatedly states (begging the question of whether any nuclear weapon can be considered “safe”) — is a way to improve them without creating new ones, thus bypassing the strictures of the NPT. Recent modernization programs, however, have prompted critics to cry foul, arguing that modernization is simply being used as a cover-up for what amounts to a new weapon. Hans Kristensen of the Federal Association of Scientists has called the proposed B61-12 a “nuclear bomb on steroids,” and Stephen Young, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, refers to NNSA’s admission that 15 out of 16 of its planned upgrades are not aimed at improving security and avoiding obsolescence but improving performance, indicating to Young that a better weapon, not simple maintenance of an existing one, has been the “driving factor” behind the modernization program.

The NNSA is a division of the Department of Energy that runs eight giant facilities in its nationwide complex. It is supposedly held in place by checks and balances within the government. But the layers are complex and at times appear to be fictitious. In response to a question at his press conference earlier this week, Senator Udall stated that NNSA and its laboratories are simply in service to the Department of Defense. Here is how he put it:

The central focus is to make sure these weapons are safe and reliable and going to be accurate if they happen to be used. The core of that is that you modernize them. Our national labs feel this is important, that they’ve been working hard and keeping it on time, and they’re trying to do everything they can to produce what it is that the end produce user wants, in this case, the defense department.

Putting aside the naiveté and even pious tone to his remarks, Udall’s statement raises an important question. Where has the DOD directed DOE to carry out this type of modernization? Or, in other words, where does the buck stop?

We called his office to inquire. The response via email from Jennifer Talhelm, Udall’s press person, was typically circuitous:

DoD works with NNSA to determine what type of weapon meets their strategic needs and what NNSA can produce. The decision with regards to the B61 LEP is therefore the result of DoD’s mission requirements, NNSA’s capabilities, and the funding available to carry out that work. 

Let us be clear, as government officials are now so fond of saying: we are talking about genocidal weapons which, if used, will eliminate entire populations, causing, as officials never like to say, horrendous suffering. Government people speak soothingly of these weapons, as if they mysteriously and miraculously guarantee the safety of such time-honored institutions as “democracy,” and, George Dubya Bush’s favorite, “freedom.” Because platitudes are so often substituted for realities, Reaching Critical Will, a division of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, last year published a report, Unspeakable Suffering, complete with scorching photographs, detailing The Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons. It’s the intent of this report to provide information that will lead governments to eliminate them. In its conclusion, the authors remind us just how ugly and widespread the impact of a nuclear explosion will be:

During the initial blast the pressure wave causes direct injuries, structural collapse and transforms objects and people into missiles hurtling through the air and into one another. The temperature of a nuclear fireball is in the range of 1 million to 100 million degrees Celsius . . . and the number of direct deaths caused by these fires would be 3-4 times that caused by the blast itself.

A-bomb blonde

Photo credit: Los Alamos Study Group (mistakenly left out by La Jicarita)

The actual physiological effects of exposure are detailed in this report, lest we allow ourselves to succumb to the belief that we are talking about pistols or even airplanes or 12-foot high walls or moats full of crocodiles, or any of the other instruments of “defense.” Whether by intention or by accident, nuclear weapons continue to be instruments of global destruction, ever at the ready.

And the cost? In a report released last week by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, modernization proposals currently on the table will cost up to $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

The astronomical expense of maintaining and “modernizing” these weapons is devouring our economy and threatening its ultimate collapse more than any other single cost, including entitlements. All the figures are available at Los Alamos Study Group’s website and Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

So why does the otherwise kindly environmentalist Tom Udall feel so committed to the B61 program?

“He will say jobs,” says Greg Mello, Executive Director of the Los Alamos Study Group, in our January 5 interview. “But it’s not really jobs. It’s about getting re-elected, making sure the labs don’t throw their weight around [sic - behind] some challenger.” Now that Udall is on the Senate Appropriations Committee, says Mello, he’s obliged “to deliver for the labs.”

But the big unanswered questions about the labs have to do with their persistent dysfunctions, their cost overruns, their failed projects, their privileges, all qualities that Mello believes will lead to their inevitable decline, which could come sooner rather than later. Three failings plague NNSA and its labs, in his view.

“There’s inflation within the complex that cannot be tamed,” said Mello.

Until the end if the Cold War, New Mexico’s nuclear labs were run as nonprofits under the University of California. After Sandia was privatized in 1950 and LANL in  2006, costs escalated, manager salaries leaped skyward, and lobbying the administration for desired funding became state of the art. Such maneuvers are detailed in a very interesting article, “Broken Promises,”published under the assumed name of Dienekes and likely written by a military analyst, Mello believes; it’s a fascinating and disturbing read on how the Obama Administration (yes, the disarmament president) traded promises of new government funding sources to the lab’s corporate owners in exchange for support for the New START treaty with Russia, in which both countries promised to reduce their arsenals,.

Funded by taxpayer money through allocations like the Omnibus, the labs are managed by private companies, chief among them, Bechtel (LANL) and Lockheed (Sandia); and their managers, like Charles McMillan at LANL, are also CEOs of the defense corporations, a fact California Senator Diane Feinstein was shocked to learn during meetings of the Appropriations Committee just last June.

The second factor in their inevitable decline, according to Mello, is complexity. Projects at the labs “are super complicated, super badly managed, super expensive and super secret.”

And third, the labs are losing their specialized staff. “People are getting older. The plutonium facility at Los Alamos, PF4, is mostly shut down. They can’t get enough criticality safety officers to keep it running.

“So it’s already started,” Mello says.

Sadly, this year’s Omnibus Budget Appropriations bill does not promise an immediate end to these habitual delusions, and Senator Udall’s confidence that bombs provide security-you-can-believe-in also does not indicate the necessary shift in thinking that is so desperately needed if we are to get our priorities straight before the roof caves in. Does New Mexico want to cling to the colonizing NNSA forever? What really is it doing for the average New Mexican? Northern New Mexico, in its present state of dependency remains one of the poorest regions in the country.

Is there just something mysterious about nuclear weapons that keeps people in their thrall?

Could be. Or maybe exposure to a constant stream of man-made radiation does permanent damage to the finer tissues of the brain.

What’s clear is that we’re not thinking clearly, and the Omnibus Appropriations Bill, though it has finally released us from sequestration, promises another year of nuclear insanity.

Stephanie Hiller is an independent journalist and editor based in Santa Fe. She blogs at

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