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"Forget the Rest" blog


Nuclear Weapons Projects Don't Even Qualify as Pork

By Russ Wellen, November 5, 2011

As those who read Focal Points regularly know, a facility intended to provide technical support for the production of the plutonium pits for nuclear warheads is under construction at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The pit -- which, one ventures to guess, makes the warhead the fruit of our nuclear-weapons program -- is where the chain reaction occurs. To Focal Points' surprise, the New York Times addressed the facility in an editorial on October 29 titled The Bloated Nuclear Budget, which began:

Twenty years after the end of the cold war, the United States still has about 2,500 nuclear weapons deployed and 2,600 more as backup. The Obama administration, in an attempt to mollify Congressional Republicans, has also committed to modernizing an already hugely expensive complex of nuclear labs and production facilities. Altogether, these and other nuclear-related programs could cost $600 billion or more over the next decade. The country does not need to maintain this large an arsenal. … especially when Congress is considering deep cuts in vital domestic programs. … President Obama [should speed up] already negotiated reductions in deployed weapons and committing to further cuts, unilaterally if necessary.


Halt construction of the new plutonium storage facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Costs have increased tenfold, and there are serious safety questions about the location — along a fault line and near an active volcano. Savings: $2.9 billion.

Greg Mello is the executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, which is leading the charge to block the facility, known as the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility (CMRR-NF), via the courts. The LASG is both appealing the dismissal of its case which sought a new Environmental Impact Statement (under the National Environmental Policy Act) to address those seismic concerns and is filing a second lawsuit to the same end. In the comments section of the op-ed, Mello points out that the Times underestimated the cost of the CMRR-NF.

The CMRR project is now expected to cost between $4 and $6 billion, not $3 billion. NNSA and the Bechtel-led consortium that runs Los Alamos want to start construction a year or more before design is completed; currently the Senate would allow and fund that but the House would not. A year from now when design is 90% complete the cost may be higher; experience shows further large cost increases can be expected between now and the planned completion date in 2023. 

Continuing to look at the CMRR-NF in purely economic terms, at the New Mexican, Roger Snodgrass writes:

Some small-business owners in Santa Fe are opposing the proposed plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory. … Although the group has been gathering support for several weeks, the announcement of its formation in a newspaper ad coincided with the release of a formal record of decision, a day earlier, that approved the plan to build a nuclear facility at LANL. … "We hope New Mexicans will take more interest now, and if they want to keep some value in the real estate and attract visitors from all over the world, they better think twice about their relation with Los Alamos," said Willem Malten, the organizer of the businesses. 
Also, in 2008
… 326 New Mexico businesses … signed a "Call to Disarmament" developed by the Los Alamos Study Group. The petition called for a stop to the "design and manufacture of all nuclear weapons, including plutonium bomb cores ['pits'] at Los Alamos and elsewhere." 

Mello, too, speaks about the effect (or lack thereof) of nuclear-weapons projects such as the CMRR-NF on the local economy in an interview with Mary-Charlotte Domandi on KSFR, Santa Fe Public Radio:

Unlike a solar or wind-energy project, which could potentially bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in capital investment and create thousands of jobs (as opposed to just 660), the CMRR, in Mello's opinion, benefits primarily the companies who already own LANL (Bechtel, the University of California, BMW), while hardly generating any long term value. "It doesn't train people to do anything in the economy," observed Mello. "It doesn't provide any infrastructure, in that it functions in the real economy (there are no goods or services provided, since no one buys or sells nuclear pits). And it attracts no private capital."

Or as Andrew Lichterman, also a member of the LASG, as well as the Western States Legal Foundation and Reaching Critical Will, writes: Even though the CMRR-NF is

… by far the largest government  construction project in New Mexico history aside from the interstate highway system [much] of this money will flow to contractors based elsewhere, as Los Alamos is now managed by a consortium including such huge multinational nuclear industry players as Bechtel and B&W. Complex high tech military construction projects create fewer jobs per dollar than most other types of public spending, and even fewer permanent positions. The end result for New Mexico, where Los Alamos County residents have a per capita income over 4 times that of the poorest county, will be further economic stratification. 

Nuclear-weapons projects are of so little benefit to the economy of the state that they don't even qualify as pork. Lichterman explains who they benefit and how. Take a moment to digest his thoughts: if you're like me, you haven't seen nuclear weapons viewed in exactly this light before.

The nuclear road provides elites in that sector with privileged access to their own country’s resources, a development context that can be shielded from foreign competition, and forms of trade and industry that can be portrayed as increasing in importance as fossil fuels diminish. The powerful tools of nationalism and “national security” secrecy both facilitate the extraction of wealth from the rest of society and prevent scrutiny of national nuclear enterprises that … have been rife with technical problems, corruption, and widespread, intractable environmental impacts. Nuclear technology, with its vision of near-magical, limitless power (an image its purveyors energetically promote), casts a positive aura over other big, centralized high-tech development programs that are profitable for elites, but have little or even negative value for much of the population in an ever more stratified world.

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