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January 4, 2018

Bulletin 242: Thank you; upcoming meetings; why is NNSA such a messed-up federal agency?

Dear colleagues and friends --

First of all, on behalf of the whole Los Alamos Study Group -- our small staff, board, our informal network of advisors, and our friends -- thank you for your generosity during our end-of-year funding drive. Thanks to you, we have a solvent start to the new year. You have given our work real wings.

We keenly recognize the moral and indeed spiritual force channeled in your donations and expressed in the beautiful letters some of you have sent, which we cherish. Together these embody a wonderful shared intent. We would like to see and work with more of you, more often, and to effectively catalyze, inspire, and support your own work. We really do need your help in that; it's impossible otherwise.

Most of all we need the organizing and networking help of people in New Mexico. We in New Mexico, in a rather special way as regards nuclear weapons, have the "power of proximity" (Arundhati Roy). It is a gentle power. We who exercise it can rather easily find camaraderie in doing so, while at the same time engaging with our political opposites in the dance. Some are future allies, who have been somewhat misguided up to now. Like Coyote over the cliff, we can offer "gravity lessons."

I (Greg) will be heading to Washington, DC next week, where we aim to make progress on a few key nuclear weapons issues -- centrally, preventing construction of an expanded factory complex for plutonium "pits," which are the cores of the fission explosives -- atomic bombs -- which trigger today's hugely-powerful thermonuclear weapons. The US has about 23,000 pits in all. There is no sane purpose in producing more.

Meetings on plutonium pit production

As discussed over the past two months (in bulletins 241, 240, 238, 237, and 236, and in this October 2016 fact sheet), decisions about where and how to re-start and expand plutonium pit production are heating up. Other good sources of information are the excellent news articles on the right side of our home page. We are working hard to bring forward questions of whether, and if so when, to re-start pit production.  

Our New Mexico Democratic senators, working together with right-wing ideologues and nuclear weapons contractors, comprise the main political force pushing for renewed pit production. Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the two New Mexico senators (accompanied by Rep. Ben Ray Lujan) want billions in renewed nuclear weapons production for LANL. And so far this is the current plan, the "program of record."

It took tremendous efforts by tens of thousands of people, over decades, to finally shut down the previous pit manufacturing facility, the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver. The pits made there, of which the US has an enormous surplus, are not "wearing out" and will last for decades longer. The human and environmental cost of producing these pits was and still is enormous. Re-starting pit production today would be at least as damaging as then, if for no other reason than because we now face existential environmental dangers which, if not faced with courage and focus, will destroy our civilization and values. The number of reasons we cannot afford to modernize or make more nuclear weapons is greater than ever. 

Responding humanely to our converging crises is a wide endeavor in which we can all play multiple, constructive roles. But in this narrow issue -- in facilitating or in halting the production of new nuclear weapons, with all that means for our politics, values, and policies -- history has assigned New Mexico a central role.

We would like to invite our members, supporters, and friends to a short briefing, question-and-answer period, and action planning at

The Commons, 2300 W Alameda St (map) in Santa Fe, on Monday, Jan 29th, from 5:30-8:30 pm.

We will provide a simple buffet dinner. Call if you want to help with that!

We would in principle be happy to hold, or to present at, other meetings you might have in mind. We'll follow your lead where and when we can. Here in Albuquerque we'll have a meeting very soon but probably not with pit production as the major theme. You can expect something from us on our local Albuquerque email list in the coming days.

Why is NNSA such a messed-up federal agency?

A year or two ago, then-Vice President Biden was puzzled. Why is NNSA so broken? Why does such a relatively small agency cause such huge problems to us here in the White House? So a memo was prepared, keeping within the mandatory two-page limit. It was euphemistically titled "Structural Features Making NNSA an Unusual Federal Agency." It has interested some journalists and will likely interest some of you.

Actually there are so many reasons NNSA is a struggling agency it is difficult to know where to start, unless it be with the mission itself. Actually, this memo does just that. We would put it differently of course.

NNSA's problems are widely recognized. In 2012, the Department of Energy (DOE) Inspector General (IG) advocated abolishing NNSA, dissolving its functions back into the wider DOE. This is a good idea.

In 2014, a congressionally-mandated study on governance of the warhead complex came to "the unmistakable conclusion...that, as implemented, the 'NNSA experiment' involving creation of a semi-autonomous organization has failed." This testimony occasioned howls of protest from NNSA and its contractors and so the final report was "improved" (i.e. neutered), and nothing much changed.

You will see from the memo that in VP Biden's office the nuclear weapons laboratories were understood to play a "special" role in NNSA's dysfunction. Throughout government a fairly large number of people understand and are outraged by the unwarranted power of, and lack of accountability at, the NNSA weapons labs.

Our most recent detailed prescription for the labs can be found in scenario form in our 2014 comments to the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories. The Commission, after noting at least 55 prior studies, came and went with no improvement whatsoever in lab management. Why? The Commission was heavily salted with lab "friendlies," per usual, as discussed in the memo for Biden.

In 2015 we called the labs "the primary institutions by which corporate prerogatives have replaced government decision-making in the nuclear weapons arena." We called then, and for the first time, for their closure, not just reform. They are indeed past reform -- and nuclear weapons, their raison d'etre, are ever more expressly illegitimate. The three nuclear labs, which are roughly the same size as they were during the Cold War (though salaries and budgets are higher in constant dollar terms) can only continue at this scale with a new Cold War, and new weapon designs. We wanted then, as we do now, to make sure all our audiences understood what we considered to be normative policy, even if it was for the moment unattainable. Some day the labs will close. The sooner the better. Meanwhile we can make them smaller by degrees. Life -- economic, cultural, social -- in their vicinity will improve, not decline. 

More soon,

Greg


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