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Bulletin #181: The National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) unfolding fiascos: a teachable moment?  (Also: our fundraising drive continues!) 

December 18, 2013

Dear friends –

In Bulletin 180 we provided a sketch of some of the ways in which the Obama Administration’s grand nuclear weapons modernization scheme is failing.  It was a partial list; there are more problems in the warhead complex – fundamental and intractable problems – than we mentioned, and with delivery system acquisition as well.   Yet the nuclear weapon establishment remains pig-headedly ignorant about most of these problems (so many parties do profit handsomely from them), so more failure is assured.

We said this failure-in-progress – the exact nature and extent of which no one can predict – was “good news.”  Why?  Because there are just many more programs, projects, and overhead than are necessary to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile, and neither successive administrations nor successive congresses have been able to rein them in.   Even programs which are provisionally necessary are often too big.  Most are unnecessarily complicated.  All are much more expensive than they could and should be.  Everywhere, contractors are paid too much.  At the three weapons labs, more than two thousand scientist-bureaucrats – many of whom have relatively little experience or in fact, expertise – pull in far more money than even cabinet secretaries and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

If the U.S. nuclear warhead complex were a federal rather than a for-profit enterprise, with all present employees becoming federal civil servants – well-paid in today’s economy, to be sure –  $2 billion could be liberated each year, about 25 cents of every dollar spent.  Were the obese physics labs put on the diet they so badly need, another billion could be saved.  If, in addition to this, needless “modernization” programs were set aside in favor of more conservative maintenance programs, the savings would amount to roughly half the money being spent today.

If these savings were re-invested in community and state energy programs (this is the Department of Energy, after all), the economic benefit to states would far surpass present conditions.

Lab cutbacks would affect only California and New Mexico, and could be managed on a voluntary basis via early retirement and other incentives such as salary subsidies for work in targeted (e.g. renewable energy) industries.  These states would greatly benefit.

The primary barriers to these transformations are: the huge sweetheart contracts given to the handful of for-profit corporations that run the weapons complex (up to $39 billion in the case of Los Alamos, in today’s dollars); the incredibly high salaries paid to senior managers at the labs especially, and the pervasive ideology that whatever it is (and especially if it’s science) contractors can do it better.  That just isn’t true, and that philosophy is not applied to many of the best federal science programs, both in the defense world (e.g. the Naval Research Laboratory) and civilian science (e.g. the National Institutes of Health).

For the most part, these potential great savings and community benefits are prior to any changes in actual nuclear weapons policy.

So proceeding to that subject, there are many more nuclear weapons than are really needed for any and all “deterrence” missions.  These missions are, to a greater or lesser extent, delusory or unnecessary in the first place.  Still more fundamentally, the threatened use of nuclear weapons promises a grotesque level of violence that is disproportionate to any conceivable threat and for this reason, not really credible.  To the extent nuclear deterrence is credible, it is not-so-latently genocidal and indeed suicidal.

For all these reasons – and please note that there are potent reasons to cut back hard at each level of critique – we need to reclaim an ever-increasing amount of this misspent wealth for other more important and uplifting national purposes.  In the simplest terms, we need to invest more in life and less in death.

Given the glaring absence of effective reform to date, we do want the unstable, towering heights of this enterprise to come down, by whatever means necessary.  It would be nice if this happened consciously and carefully, as if one were taking down a large tree near homes.  (We are all neighbors.)  The fundamental contradictions within these programs, and the freshening fiscal breeze, mean that more limbs must come down.  The sooner the better.

As the Greeks generally knew but we generally do not, grandiosity and hubris inevitably lead to failure and humiliation.  We hope NNSA’s present failures provide a teachable moment.  If not, expect more failures, and rejoice in them.

Sincerely,

Greg and Trish, for the Study Group

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