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U.S. Nuclear Warhead Research and Production -
With No Real Debate, Diminishing Prospects for Control

Greg Mello
March 22, 2004

The Bush Administration entered office with an unapologetic vision of global U.S. military dominance, including a clear endorsement of the explicit role of nuclear weapons in that dominance. In this vision, the credible threat of nuclear strikes with existing and proposed new kinds of weapons, either pre-emptive or retaliatory, would deter a wide range of possible attacks on the United States as well as on U.S. forces, allies, and interests around the world. In the words of the December 2001 Nuclear Posture Review,

Nuclear weapons play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States, its allies and friends. They provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats, including WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and large-scale conventional military force. The nuclear capabilities possess unique properties that give the United States options to hold at risk classes of targets [that are] important to achieve strategic and political objectives.1

Beyond deterrence, nuclear weapons are said to offer "something more." The Congressional Research Service calls this other form of power "coercion."2 The Defense Science Board recently used the term "compellence" for the same idea."3

To the Administration and its domestic political allies, "credible" threats involving "appropriate" nuclear weapons assure our allies, reduce their incentives to proliferate, reassure the American public, and dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing threatening capabilities. Merely investing in nuclear programs and infrastructure would, in their view, enhance deterrence by making the threat of being attacked by newer, supposedly more capable weapons more credible. At the same, new nuclear weapons factories would dissuade other countries from competing militarily with the U.S. by virtue of the scale, capability, flexibility, and surge capacity of the U.S. nuclear complex.4

Given the narrow scope and mostly unfortunate outcome of the recent congressional debate on nuclear weapons it is apparent that the Administration's views are not opposed by the majority of current members of Congress. How many in Congress would actively support what might be called "the new nuclearism" in the face of stronger and more principled opposition is a question that must remain unanswered until that opposition appears.

The State of the Debate: Four Skirmishes

Implementation of these remarkable ideas is being energetically pursued across a broad front by both the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Department of Defense (DoD). In sharp contrast, arms control and congressional concern has focused almost exclusively on four small but symbolic parts of this agenda:

  • " Low-yield nuclear weapons ("mininukes"), currently situated in a broader budget line called the "Advanced Concepts Initiative" or ACI (FY04 funding, $6 million, with $4 million currently unavailable pending submission to Congress of a required overall plan for the nuclear weapons stockpile; FY05 request, $9 million).

    Although it appears to be a small program, ACI provides formal authorization for research into any and all possible nuclear weapons across the weapons complex. As Linton Brooks, Administrator of the NNSA put it in a memo to the nuclear labs, weapons scientists should now "close any gaps" and leave "no novel nuclear weapons concept" unexplored. Brooks specifically mentioned "agent defeat" and "low collateral damage" weapons as being on his wish-list. After thanking the labs for their help in overturning the mininuke ban5, Brooks reiterated, "We should not fail to take advantage of this opportunity."6

    This triumphant memo elicited a caustic response from David Hobson and Peter Visclosky, the Chairman and Ranking Minority Member, respectively, of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, complaining that Mr. Brooks' discussions with the subcommittee did not accurately disclose the extensive ambitions of this program.7

    ACI's other principle purpose is to develop new leaders among the up-and-coming nuclear weapons scientists and to provide for "personal contacts [by weapons scientists] with members of the U.S. Strategic Command and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, among others, to gain an understanding of what weapons might be of value to DOD, and to give DOD a sense of what weapons technologies may be available."8 This particular partnership has been extremely important in advancing nuclear weapons interests ever since the Manhattan Project, and in the last decade and a half has been crucial in the formation of today's nuclear revival.

  • " The "robust nuclear earth penetrator," or RNEP, described by NNSA as a "high-yield" weapon (FY04 funding, $7.5 million; FY05 request, $27.6 million). RNEP is to be a modification of one or both of two existing free-fall bombs, either the B61 or the B83. Both of these bombs have multiple yield options, ranging from a potential low of about 300 tons up to about 350 kilotons (the B61) or 1.2 megatons (the B83). If built, it may well be a multi-yield weapon, with one or more high-yield options. The budget for RNEP, predictably enough, is poised to expand in the years ahead.9

  • " Enhanced readiness to conduct nuclear explosive tests (FY04 funding, $24.7 million; FY05 request, $30 million). This year's legislation directs NNSA to get ready to conduct a nuclear test within 18 months of an order to do so.

  • " A large-scale manufacturing facility for plutonium weapon cores, or pits, currently called the "Modern Pit Facility" or MPF (FY04 funding, $10.8 million; FY05 request, $29.8 million)10. The MPF, if built, would have a capacity of a few hundred plutonium pits per year (officially, 250 to 450 pits/year)11. The actual capacity to be achieved by 2020, when the facility would be fully on-line, is hard to pin down because the technologies for pit manufacturing are evolving as they are further developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

    The MPF would supplement existing pit manufacturing facilities at LANL, centered at Technical Area 55 (TA-55), Building PF-4. These LANL facilities now have a capacity of about 50 pits/year. LLNL could also manufacture about 50 pits/year if most other plutonium programs at the facility were terminated.12

    For reasons that will be explained shortly, these existing facilities are far from adequate to support a large arsenal. A radical expansion of these facilities, on the other hand, raises the specter of either an "MPF by another name" - or, alternatively, a staged, multi-site increase in production capacity. New construction would begin at LANL under this scenario, to be followed by construction of the MPF elsewhere. "Elsewhere" is probably the Savannah River Site (SRS), which NNSA ranked just behind LANL in overall attractiveness.13 It is quite possible that NNSA is already pursuing this "dual-track" option (or "triple-track," if LLNL is included), in continuity with the intent of the Department of Energy (DOE) during the Clinton Administration.

The authorization and funding for these four programs were among the most hotly-debated issues in the FY04 defense budget cycle, despite the fact that the amount of money "in play" during the debate was less than 1% of the total NNSA FY04 nuclear weapons budget ($6.51 billion appropriated, including administrative costs).14 It is a still smaller portion of all U.S. spending on nuclear weapons (totaling perhaps four times NNSA spending), and a miniscule fraction of U.S. military spending overall. The amounts cut from the original request by the loyal opposition from these four line items amounted to $19.5 million, less than 10% of the increase in the overall NNSA nuclear weapons budget from FY03 to FY04 ($284 million, administration included).

In terms of authorizations, the Administration also got most of what it asked for. The nominal time needed to conduct a nuclear test was lowered from 24 to 18 months. The RNEP, ACI, and MPF were also approved in principle and funded, at least for the time being.

The ban on designing mininukes was fully repealed.

The executive branch must return to Congress for specific authorization to further develop and build the new weapons, but that is what must be done every year in any case. Such authorization can occur in a secret process, outside the normal budget process, and need not involve more than eight members of Congress - as was done to authorize engineering and production of the B61-11 earth-penetrator in 1995.15

To reiterate, while these relatively small programs were being debated with little success by the opposition, fully nine-tenths of this year's expansion of the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure and programs, or about 99% of the whole, passed Congress without even any debate.

What was not debated included: the size and composition of the U.S. stockpile, planned "transformational" replacements and upgrades to nuclear delivery systems (see "Missiles of Empire" by Andrew Lichterman, this issue), all questions of nuclear doctrine and targeting, an extensive upgrade of nuclear command and control underway in connection with new non-nuclear "global strike" capabilities that will enable rapid nuclear attack planning and execution, modification of existing nuclear weapons to give them significant new military characteristics, the large NNSA experimental, computational, and infrastructure projects other than the MPF, with total life-cycle costs no doubt in the $100 billion range, and finally, any approach to nonproliferation and nuclear security that even faintly acknowledges U.S. obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Can these new U.S. nuclear weapons programs be stopped?

Of course they can - if those who oppose them do so ardently, vigorously, and intelligently enough. Can they be stopped if the debate about nuclear policy remains narrowly focused on a few incremental issues like the four listed above? Probably not. There are many reasons for this; the space available here allows examination of this question for just one of these controversial proposals, the Modern Pit Facility.

The primary stages of all deployed U.S. weapons contain fissile cores - pits - made with plutonium. Unless they get too hot, these pits remain metallurgically stable for decades.16 But how many decades? This is not clear. The official position of both nuclear design laboratories (Los Alamos and Livemore) in late 2002 was that, given the information at hand, the minimum pit longevity lies in the range of 45 and 60 years.17

Approximately 80% of the pits in the circa 10,500-weapon U.S. stockpile were made in the 1980 -1989 period; as many as 2,200 may remain from the 1969-1979 decade.18 This means that some deployed pits may reach 45 years of age in 2014, if the very oldest pits have not already been retired. Each year after 2025 will see increasing numbers of deployed pits exceeding 45 years of age. As U.S. military command authorities apparently see the issue, already, each year that passes only increases the possible need for the large-scale, rapid "reconstitution" of one or more pit types.

There is much more that could be said, but this sketch may suffice to show that it is difficult to argue against establishing a large pit manufacturing capability in the next decade or two, if a U.S. arsenal in the 10,000-weapon range is to be supported over the coming several decades. Since it will take a decade or more to complete such a facility - NNSA estimates 15 years, plus another two years to achieve full-scale production - it is likewise difficult to argue that the initial planning and design for such a facility should not start now, more or less.

To put it another way, if many thousands of nuclear weapons are considered both legitimate and important, Congress will see little downside in preparing the ground for the MPF or its equivalent, conducting the required environmental and siting studies and the conceptual design for the facility. The annual investment required will be relatively modest, as we see in this year's budget request ($30 million). Relatively small expenditures such as these are typically seen as merely prudent investments, an insurance policy as it were, to avoid a potential national security "catastrophe." As an aside, it seems to be the reputation of nuclear weapons as supposedly-legitimate "absolute weapons" which lends them near- "absolute" political potency in such situations.

Delay is often a good political outcome in such struggles, often the best one can hope for. But any delays in a MPF will only increase the perceived technical need for it, all other things being equal, because the number of years left of absolute surety in pit performance, whatever that number may be for each class or cohort of pits, is declining. Thus "confidence" in the stockpile, as the term is used in U.S. debates, is declining. In the final analysis, the number of years of absolute surety left for each pit or class of pits is unknowable (the "absolute" requirement, again, is inherent in the perceived "absolute" role of the weapons). It is unknowable if for no other reason than because variations in pits as manufactured and deployed are not known and cannot be known in any statistical or inferential sense without dismantling the weapons. To the extent the remaining sure pit life is known, that information is the somewhat-subjective product and property of the weapons laboratories. Therefore each year that passes only increases the putative need for surge production capacity. Since it takes a long time to build such a facility, the very scale and complexity of the project becomes an argument for its capacity. In other words, the scale of the proposed facility justifies itself, given the scale of the arsenal and the ineluctable uncertainties of pit manufacturing and aging.

Downsizing the proposed facility is probably not a realistic political goal. As noted above, the ultimate production rate for a given facility is unknown, preliminary estimates asides. Further, most of the cost of a pit manufacturing plant lies in providing the basic facility itself, and the economies of scale are such that only a 10% increase in building size can provide twice as much production capacity and flexibility.19

Some have argued that LANL's TA-55 could substitute for the MPF. From the standpoint of scale and flexibility, it cannot even begin to do so, even if it began maximum production this year (which it assuredly cannot). Therefore any policy dependent upon existing LANL facilities becomes an argument for the rapid and radical expansion of those facilities - a MPF by another name - or for supplementing them with a dedicated single-purpose facility elsewhere, namely the MPF. As mentioned before, the most likely ultimate outcome of such a LANL-based pit policy, given LANL's poor track record in pit production, a LANL culture that is inimical to large-scale production, and LANL's expressed lack of interest in large-scale pit production, would be three pit production sites - R&D facilities at LANL and LLNL and production at LANL and a MPF, the former likely providing a special or small-production-run weapon capability.

In the long run, there are no arguments, either weak or strong, against a pit manufacturing capability if there are going to be nuclear weapons with pits. There could, however, also be nuclear weapons without pits, made of highly enriched uranium (HEU).20 Senior weapons scientists have advocated consideration of these weapons for the future stockpile.21

There are arguments for surge production, and hence for an MPF or its equivalent, that are independent of aging. One would be a policy shift in which the Navy sought insensitive high explosive (IHE) for its primaries, citing a renewed interest in safety. Another would be a reevaluation of the inherent reliability of any primary, suggesting that other, more "robust" primaries might be better if we had them. The replacement warhead design would be described as one that would age more gracefully, was more inherently reliable, and required replacement less often, and so generated less nuclear waste and operational safety problems in the long run. As droll as these arguments are, they might be adequately persuasive.

The Indispensable Argument

In the final analysis, the only safe nuclear weapon is one which does not exist, and the only nuclear weapon which does not have to be replaced eventually is one which the possessor does not want. The only way to fully eliminate the risk of unreliability in aging warheads - the political driver for the MPF - is to retire and dismantle aging warheads. It is only with a much smaller arsenal that the U.S. can avoid building a new pit production facility sooner or later - which, to Congress, means starting the long process of building one now.

Aiming for a much smaller arsenal - which Mr. Bush has already done rhetorically at least in the Moscow Treaty - would ease the immediate pressure for an MPF in a number of ways. First, by decreasing the total eventual production requirement, it postpones the date on which production would need to begin. Second, some of the older primaries could be retired first, stabilizing or lowering the average age of pits in the stockpile somewhat. Third, in the short run at least, there would be more back-up possibilities for the remaining weapons, since U.S. nuclear weapon physics packages, and components within them, are fairly highly interchangeable. W78s, B61s, W84s, and W80s may all be adaptable to the reentry bodies on Trident missiles, to take one example.22 Other substitutions are also possible.

How much time for much-needed debate would an order-of-magnitude stockpile cut provide? Only a few years, probably, but those years would be a very precious opportunity. Real debate may occur about the costs of the highly-militarized and highly-nuclearized U.S. global empire. The financial impact, at least, cannot be avoided forever.

If, however, neither the legitimacy nor relevance of nuclear weapons is strongly challenged, no doubt the money will be found, even under conditions of fiscal austerity, not just for the MPF but for all four of these controversial programs.

As far as the MPF is concerned, this is the upshot: if we seek to defeat the MPF on narrow technical grounds, without at the same time building consensus for deep cuts in the arsenal and for the fundamental illegitimacy of nuclear weapons as instruments of national will, we will fail resoundingly, and at the same time degrade our chances for success in disarmament (and hence, I believe, nonproliferation) in the future. There are no merely-technical grounds for success in the MPF debate.

If, on the other hand, we use the MPF as a "Bush-given" chance to illuminate the fundamental security contradictions inherent not just in a large nuclear arsenal but in any nuclear arsenal - and in so doing begin the neglected work of knitting back together the prudential, the legal, and the moral in public discourse about nuclear weapons - we can win, and not just on the MPF but also in a much greater sense. We will be building political strength not just logically and morally but also organizationally, since it is only with non-technical, value-based arguments that any popular participation can be based, or any common cause created with other issues in society. Merely technical arguments are inherently non-political - even anti-political - and weaken us. We can and must use them, but only as part of a larger context, from which they derive their human meaning and political strength.
Because of all these factors, it seems that the MPF debate is actually a cryptic referendum on the future of the U.S. stockpile and hence on the role of nuclear weapons in the security policy of the United States. We must join this debate, all of us, including and even especially Europeans. The nuclear weapons advocates in the Bush Administration certainly have, and they are so far defining the terms of debate.

If we who are concerned about Mr. Bush's "new nuclearism" misread the nature of this debate - the debate about the MPF and the other controversial new weapons programs listed above - thinking that what is in question is a separable, specific "new" proposal which can be defeated without questioning the legitimacy of nuclear weapons as a whole, we will be wasting our resources and talents in a losing and lonely struggle. If, on the other hand, we gladly embrace the challenge which Mr. Bush has given us, a challenge to explicitly re-open debate about the legitimacy and importance of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy, I think we will discover a great many cooperating causes rising in our favor.

The nuclear weapons advocates have made their proposals. What are ours?


1. Department of Defense, December 31, 2001, "Nuclear Posture Review" [leaked excerpts], p. 7, at http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/policy/dod/npr.htm. For deterrence umbrella for allies, see same document, p. 12. For pre-emptive strikes, see White House, September 2002, "National Security Strategy of the United States of America," at http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.html, and White House, December 2002, "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction," at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/12/WMDStrategy.pdf. This last was first articulated in a larger, classified form on September 14, 2002 as "National Security Presidential Directive 17."
2. Both quotes are from Jonathan Medalia, "Nuclear Weapon Initiatives: Low-Yield R&D, Advanced Concepts, Earth Penetrators, Test Readiness," October 28, 2003, Congressional Research Service, RL32130, p. 28, at http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/crs/RL32130.pdf.
3. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, "Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Discriminate Use of Force," July 2003, p. 1, at http://www.acq.osd.mil/dsb/duf.pdf.
4. Department of Defense, "Nuclear Posture Review," cited above.

5. The "Spratt-Furse Amendment", Section 3136, FY94 Defense Authorization Act (Public Law 103-160).
6. Memorandum from Linton Brooks to Pete Nanos, Michael Anastasio, and C. Paul Robinson [the nuclear laboratory directors], December 5, 2003, at http://www.lasg.org/technical/newweapons/LintonBrooksMemoDec5-2003.pdf.
7. David Hobson and Peter Visclosky, letter to Linton Brooks, January 22, 2004, at http://www.fcnl.org/pdfs/lettertobrooks.pdf.
8. Jon Medalia, op. cit., p. 39.

9. Jon Medalia, "Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator Budget Request and Plan, FY2005-FY2009," March 8, 2004, Congressional Research Service, RS21762.
10. Department of Energy, FY 2005 Congressional Budget Request [CBR], Vol. 1: National Nuclear Security Administration, at http://www.cfo.doe.gov/budget/05budget/content/volumes/Volume_1.pdf.
11. The 250 pit/yr figure would require two worker shifts, according to NNSA, but is nonetheless inherent in the smallest facility under NNSA consideration.
12. LANL replaced its original plutonium facility (at Technical Area TA-21, "DP Site") in 1978 with its present TA-55 PF-4 facility, which has 59,600 sq. ft. of DOE "hazard category I" plutonium-handling space and supporting facilities. Livermore's modern-era "Superblock" facility (Building B332 and ancillary facilities) contains 25,000 sq. ft. of "hazcat I" plutonium space, or about 42% of LANL's. Leaving aside questions regarding the appropriateness of the location, the LLNL facility is more than large enough to produce up to 50 pits/year, were no other missions competing for the space and if the facility were supplied with recycled plutonium already "cleaned" of impurities like Am-241. Alternatively, LLNL could provide process development, freeing production equipment at LANL and other sites for actual production. This appears to be the path NNSA has chosen for the present; NNSA proposes to increase the administrative limit for plutonium present in the LLNL "Superblock" from 700 kg to 1,500 kg and to conduct pit production R&D in that building, among other missions (Draft Site-wide Environmental Impact Statement for Continued Operation of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Supplemental Stockpile Stewardship and Management Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (February 2004).

13. DOE," Modern Pit Facility Screening Report," at http://www.mpfeis.com/. The ranking scores for the sites were 219, 195, 169,162, and 143, for LANL, SRS, the Nevada Test Site (NTS), the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, TX, and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, respectively. A project description, schedule, environmental impact statement, and other information can be found at this web site.
14. DOE FY 2005 CBR, Vol. 1, cited above. The funds for enhanced test readiness weren't a matter of debate; the degree of enhancement was.
15. Greg Mello, "Birth of a New Bomb," Washington Post, June 1, 1997, at http://www.lasg.org/archives.htm.

16. "Thus, crucial primary-stage components that were initially subject to concern have been shown through the SSP [stockpile stewardship program] to be robust as they age. Indeed, there is now consensus among specialists that the Pu pits in the US stockpile are stable over periods of at least 50­60 years, with the most recent studies suggesting a far longer period. More important than the indications of benign aging is the demonstration that the materials are now becoming understood in sufficient detail, and surveillance methods are becoming sensitive enough, to ensure that any signs of degradation will be observed in time to apply the necessary repairs or refurbishment." (Raymond Jeanloz, "Stockpile Stewardship," Physics Today, December 2000, 53:12, available at http://www.physicstoday.org/pt/vol-53/iss-12/p44.html.)
17. Jeffrey Kass, Stockpile Evaluation Program Leader, LLNL, and Joseph Martz, Program Manager for Enhanced Surveillance and Weapon Materials, LANL, June 2001, cited by Jonathan Medalia in "Nuclear Warhead 'Pit' Production Issues," Congressional Research Service, RS20956, July 26, 2001. Medalia initially misquotes Kass and Martz, the cognizant officials at the two laboratories, as saying that the "best current estimate of pit life is 45 to 60 years," but later goes on to say that it "is not clear that pits will fail for many decades, if ever" (p. 5). On October 31, 2002, Mr. Kass confirmed to the author that 45-60 years was, at that time, the two labs' combined best estimate of "minimum" pit life.
18. Author's analysis.

19. Branstetter, Linda, Sandia National Laboratory, "Plutonium-Pit Production in the 21st Century: Salient Features of the DPAG [Defense Programs Advisory Group] Study," March 21, 2000 (unclassified). The classified Sandia DPAG study, as updated, is the analytical basis for the MPF proposal and is the study referred to in the September 23, 2002 Federal Register announcement (November 4, 2002 interview with Jerry Freedman, MPF Project Manager, NNSA, Washington, DC).
20. These weapons would not require nuclear testing, but are heavier than weapons with pits. This is not particularly a technical disadvantage for earth-penetrating weapons.
21. Stephen Younger, "Nuclear Weapons in the Twenty-First Century," LANL, June 27, 2000, LAUR-00-2850.

22. Los Alamos National Laboratory, "The U.S. Nuclear Stockpile: Looking Ahead; Drivers of, and Limits to, Change in a Test-Constrained Nuclear Stockpile," March 1999, unclassified as redacted. Obtained by the Los Alamos Study Group under the Freedom of Information Act.

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