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N.M.’s Nuke Dilemma

By John Fleck / Journal Staff Writer on Sun, Jul 1, 2012

With an historic arms control deal under its belt to cut U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles to 1,550 weapons each, the Obama administration has begun looking at what happens next, including the possibility of further reductions.

An internal Pentagon review now under way reportedly includes three “what if” scenarios looking at what further reductions might entail – 1,000-1,100, 700-800 or 300-400 weapons deployed on U.S. missiles and bombers.

The results could have a significant impact on New Mexico’s nuclear weapons laboratories, but what that impact might be remains unclear.

Thus far, stockpile cuts since the end of the Cold War have led to increased workloads for the nuclear weapons laboratories, which have shifted to maintaining old weapons rather than designing new ones, and experts say that is likely to be the case with further reductions. That could depend, however, on how many different types of nuclear weapons the United States decides to maintain.

The same scientific capabilities to do things like analyzing the plutonium in aging weapons are needed whether the labs are monitoring a handful of weapons or thousands, said former Los Alamos National Laboratory director Sig Hecker. For that work, he said, the size of the stockpile doesn’t matter. “We’re talking about capabilities, not capacity,” Hecker said in an interview.

But Obama administration critics wonder whether the possibility of future cuts may be behind a recent decision to scale back planned spending increases at Los Alamos, including the indefinite delay of a multibillion-dollar plutonium laboratory complex.

Nuclear weapons have long been a mainstay of New Mexico’s economy, with some 20,000 people total employed at Los Alamos and Sandia national labs. The labs, especially Sandia, have diversified in recent years, but nuclear weapons remain their main job.

By the numbers

The current U.S. stockpile of deployed weapons numbers is 1,737. The Russian treaty calls for reducing that to 1,550 by 2018.

The numbers being bandied about refer to actively deployed weapons, on bombers and missiles, ready for use. With additional weapons in storage as reserves, and awaiting dismantlement, the total U.S. stockpile numbers some 5,000 nuclear weapons.

Public discussions of the possibility of deeper nuclear arsenal cuts were triggered by a February leak to the Associated Press about internal Pentagon deliberations regarding the size of the U.S. stockpile.

With the reduction to 1,550 already under way, the Pentagon was now looking at scenarios that could drop the stockpile of deployed U.S. nuclear weapons further, to as low as 300 to 400, the news agency reported. It is unclear how many non-deployed weapons would be retained under the scenarios being discussed.

The Obama administration acknowledged a study is under way but would not confirm the numbers.

President Barack Obama signaled his desire for reduced nuclear arsenals soon after his election, with an April 2009 speech in Prague in which he pledged to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” But in the next sentences, he signaled the difficulties attached to that pursuit: “This goal will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime,” he said. The years since have reflected the tension between the two goals – on the one hand reducing the size of the arsenal while on the other hand beefing up the nuclear weapons infrastructure needed to maintain what remains.

In New Mexico, that has resulted in an increase in spending on nuclear weapons work at Sandia and Los Alamos – $3.1 billion per year in the administration’s most recent budget, up 18 percent since the Bush administration. Much of that increase has been concentrated at Sandia, with Los Alamos seeing more modest gains. With loss of other non-nuclear weapons money, Los Alamos cut 557 staff jobs through buyouts earlier this year. And big future planned increases in spending at Los Alamos are in jeopardy after the administration recommended indefinitely delaying work on the massive plutonium complex at the lab.

In addition to the Pentagon’s internal deliberations, Former Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman James Cartwright, a retired Marine Corps general, released a white paper in May arguing that 450 deployed nuclear weapons would be sufficient to meet U.S. defense needs.

Officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration, the federal agency that funds Los Alamos and Sandia, declined a request for an interview for this story.

But in a presentation earlier this year, agency deputy chief Don Cook laid out long-range plans for nuclear weapons research and development work at the labs, aimed at maintaining existing weapon systems, that are largely independent of the size of the arsenal.

But one key unanswered question, according to retired Sandia Labs vice president Bob Peurifoy, is whether a reduction in the size of the arsenal would also be accompanied by a reduction in the number of different weapon types.

There are currently seven different warhead models in the arsenal. If that number is reduced, Peurifoy said, some of the labs’ weapon-specific workload would decline.

Challenges of a smaller stockpile

Maintaining a smaller stockpile creates two challenges for the laboratories, according to Hecker, a co-director of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. The first is the need for research and development work to extend the lifetime of existing weapons parts. The second is to maintain the ability to remanufacture weapons if either components or full weapons need replacement, he said.

“A smaller stockpile means the stewards become more important,” Hecker said.

But some experts think a smaller stockpile could reduce the need for a major new plutonium laboratory at Los Alamos – an issue that has become a major political sticking point in current deliberations over the labs’ futures.

A smaller stockpile could reduce the need for the new plutonium lab by reducing the requirement for future production of new weapon parts, said Chris Timm, a senior vice president at PECOS Management, an Albuquerque consulting firm that does work for federal nuclear programs.

The increasing pressure on lab infrastructure to support a smaller stockpile, and the possibility of further cuts in the size of the U.S. arsenal, have created a political rift between the administration and congressional Republicans.

That gap got a very public airing late last month at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, as Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., grilled senior administration officials about the issue.

The Republican senator, one of Congress’ strongest advocates for modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, was already frustrated by the administration’s decision to cut billions from future budgets that was to build the new plutonium building at Los Alamos.

Then word leaked of the internal Pentagon study of the possibility of substantial future cuts in the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Could the two be connected, Corker wondered aloud during the hearing?

“It seems like things are being slow-walked,” Corker said, “and I almost wonder whether, as the president is announcing further reductions, the reason that much of the modernization is being slow-walked is that there’s no intention to follow through and they actually hope to come up with more reductions.”

Administration officials responded that no decisions about deeper stockpile cuts have been made. And despite their decision to cut funding for the plutonium building at Los Alamos, National Nuclear Security Administration chief Tom D’Agostino told Corker and his colleagues, overall nuclear weapons complex spending is going up.

“I can assure you,” D’Agostino said during the June 21 hearing, “there’s no slow-walking going on.”

The administration’s latest budget request for the agency is nearly 20 percent higher than the spending level the agency inherited from the Bush administration, D’Agostino pointed out. “This is unprecedented,” D’Agostino told the committee.


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