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Weapons experts gather in N.M. to discuss nuclear work

Posted: Tuesday, June 21, 2016 11:20 pm | Updated: 12:47 am, Wed Jun 22, 2016.

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

During former President Bill Clinton’s first term, with efforts underway to reduce the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons developed during the Cold War, federal officials questioned the need for continued operations at national laboratories. But lab directors met with then-U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, and officials decided instead to transition the labs to the role of maintaining the nation’s nuclear stockpile.

“We had considerable trepidation,” Roger Hagengruber, senior vice president emeritus of Sandia National Laboratories, told more than 250 senior military, government and laboratory officials, as well as experts from around the globe and defense contractors, at a nuclear defense conference Tuesday in Albuquerque. He said the decision was made before the rise of Apple or personal computer technology, and it was based on 1970s-era designs for the plutonium pit, the fission trigger at the core of a nuclear warhead.

Hagengruber, then a senior official at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said that despite concerns at the time, increased funding was given to the weapons program “to provide confidence in the stockpile,” and a decision was made to enhance computer-based weapons testing models.

“That was the beginning,” he said.

Two decades later, defense and weapons experts at the Strategic Deterrent Coalition Symposium said they are challenged by an underfunded federal program to modernize an aging nuclear arsenal, the obstacles of transferring scientific knowledge to a new generation at the labs, and the difficult mission of deterring any threats that could arise from a nation like North Korea, which claims it is testing nuclear weapons, or an “increasingly aggressive” Russia.

And now, with Los Alamos National Laboratory preparing to increase production of new plutonium pits — Robert Webster, principal associate director for the weapons program at Los Alamos, called the lab “the plutonium manufacturing plant for the country” — they also face opposition from anti-nuclear weapons activists.

As a small group of protesters demonstrated outside the event, panelist Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which advocates for reducing nuclear stockpiles, spoke at the conference about a growing movement against weapons that he called “immoral, unnecessary and unaffordable.”

“I understand you are primarily a business coalition here to support your bases, your programs and your contracts,” he said. “You don’t want someone coming in here telling you that what you are doing is unmoral.”

While many at the conference spoke about nuclear weapons across the globe as a deterrent to large-scale acts of violence by nations, Cirincione said there is an increasing counterdialogue that nuclear weapons are a “chip of decreasing value” and that the U.S., by continuing to maintain its nuclear weapons, also is maintaining its nuclear enemies.

A banner reading “Nuclear weapons are for terrorists” was strung up outside the Crowne Plaza hotel.

But Admiral Cecil C. Haney, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said the lack of refurbished nuclear weapons “will create unacceptable risk,” and he spoke on the urgency of labs’ mission to update the arsenal.

“Today our stockpile is the oldest it’s ever been,” he said, adding that the average age of a U.S. nuclear weapon is 27 years.

“We can accept no more risks or delays to this program,” he said. “Simply put, we are out of time.”

Haney praised the U.S. defense budget proposed for fiscal year 2017, saying it will continue the momentum of weapons work already well underway.

Steve Rottler, deputy laboratories director at Sandia, said the current workload there is “unlike anything we’ve experienced in three decades.”

Frank G. Klotz, undersecretary for nuclear security at the National Nuclear Security Administration, said, “The NNSA is probably the busiest it’s been with weapons activities since the end of the Cold War.”

He highlighted progress made on life-extension programs for weapons, including the W76-1 nuclear submarine and technology advancements for the B61-12 gravity bombs. These projects are increasingly on schedule and on budget, he said. “Over the past two to three years, the NNSA has brought increased rigor and discipline to the way in which we manage those vitally important undertakings.”

Klotz cited the challenges, however, of aging laboratory infrastructure, much of which is more than 50 years old and requires billions of dollars in repairs.

“While we have significant challenges ahead,” he said, “we have reason to be optimistic.”

Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force, brought up arguments by some members of Congress and anti-nuclear advocates against the trillions of dollars projected to be spent on the weapons program. Nuclear modernization spending is expected to take up an estimated 7 percent of the defense budget over the next 30 years, funding that Weinstein said “provides a deterrent capability, that prevents mass graves across the planet, nation by nation.”

Still, he said, “We can’t forget what history looked like.” Photographs projected on a screen showed soldiers during the first and second world wars, flattened communities and of rows of identical white gravestones.

Reminding a new generation about nuclear science’s grim past is part of the difficult mission of passing on nuclear weapons technologies to a younger workforce.

Lab officials said they’re facing stiffer competition from the private sector in recent years to recruit workers, and fewer universities are offering programs geared toward nuclear weapons work.

New Mexico’s congressional delegation has made a concerted push to work with national labs and the state’s universities and community colleges to help prepare students for lab careers. Democratic Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich met with higher education and business leaders in the state in early June to discuss ways to keep jobs in New Mexico and to develop specialized programs.

But outside the Crowne Plaza hotel on Tuesday, protesters said enhancing the nuclear industry and boosting jobs in the field are not what they want for New Mexico.

Two police cars were stationed at the hotel throughout the day as a group of about 15 anti-nuclear proliferation activists, most from the Los Alamos Study Group, held signs decrying nuclear weapons.

Bob Anderson, 72, a former member of the Air Force who served in Vietnam, said working for the war efforts “woke me up to all this.”

“People who generate wars, and profit from war, keep violent solutions out there,” he said.

Stella Padilla of Albuquerque, whose eyes were painted with metallic brown “war paint” and whose hair was adorned with a feather, said, “I don’t want nuclear weapons in New Mexico.”

“It’s just time to say, ‘No,’ ” said Bill Bruce of Santa Fe. “Especially us as New Mexicans. We have a particular responsibility to stop what’s happening, the waste of money and resources, and … all those beautiful minds wasted on nuclear weapons.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.


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