CMRR is no more, but the pits go marching on

By Stephanie Hiller (

In February, the President’s 2013 budget request denied funding for the proposed new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR) at Los Alamos National Laboratory for the next five years. “We look on it more as a deferment than a cancellation,” said Steve Fong, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Project Manager for CMRR, at a September 26 public meeting in Los Alamos.

Department of Energy photo

Meanwhile, the Lab was directed to find a less expensive way to produce plutonium pits to meet the goal of modernizing the nuclear force which, as the NNSA has been insisting, and hawks have been believing, is deteriorating. Whether or not this is true is arguable. As Willard Hunter, a retired Sandia National Lab scientist told me, “Every year they take them out and polish them, make sure they still work.” The challenge is to do that without testing them; all nuclear testing has been outlawed since 1992. Hence armaments makers must rely on proven designs.

The day after the budget was released, LANL director Charles McMillan distributed a statement to the staff assuring them that the Lab would fulfill its mission; and in August, the Lab produced an outline of how it proposed to do that, “Plan B.” Much of Plan B is classified, but resourceful activists have been able to piece together the broad outlines. For just under a billion (a bargain when compared to the projected $5.4 billion to build the CMRR-Nuclear Facility, but still a lot of dollars when you look at the swelling deficit) LANL proposes to extend the nearly completed radiological lab, RLUOB, built as part of the CMRR Project, and build a tunnel to the nearby plutonium facility, PF-4, so that plutonium pits can be transported safely from their place of construction for certification.

The production of pits is a big deal. It requires the engagement of some 700 employees to produce just one pit, according to an article in a Los Alamos publication entitled “The Perfect Pit.” All of this might be impressive as sophisticated technological achievement were it not for its end result — the destruction of an entire city with a single bomb. Pits are the cores of thermonuclear weapons, triggering a reaction far greater than the one the world witnessed in Hiroshima. The reaction would be so big, in fact, that during the Cold War both the USSR and the U.S. hesitated to use them (amazing grace!), and a theory of deterrence emerged from the Rand Institute that the trillions of dollars we each invested in the thousands and thousands of gigantic bombs had the purpose of stopping the other country from using theirs.

Although unverifiable – we don’t know for certain that it was the existence of more and more bombs that actually stopped either nation – deterrence became the mantra of national security wonks for whom bomb production was deemed necessary and unavoidable in a nuclear global environment. In other words, however much we might wish it to be different, there’s no other way.

After 911, President George W. Bush made some significant changes to the strategy of deterrence. Since the U.S. had not used a nuclear bomb in its successive wars since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was beginning to look like we would never dare to use one, and terrorists who made no secret of their intention to acquire – and use — nuclear bombs thought (perhaps) that the Great Satan had become a wuss. Apparently determined to show the world that such was not the case, “Dubya” Bush, in his Nuclear Posture Review, a policy statement each new president is required to produce, made several significant changes in nuclear policy of which the public is generally not aware.

One was to include conventional weapons and nuclear weapons in the same discussion under the same criteria. This had never been done, with nuclear weapons always considered so dangerous they had to be considered separately. The second was to propose the production of smaller, “reliable, credible and useable” nuclear warheads. The operative word here is, of course, is useable.

Though lower level managers at nuclear labs may continue to speak of deterrence as the national security policy of the United States, it should be clear that things have changed; the purpose of national policy is not to deter a presumably rational enemy from attacking us, but rather to show any enemy – nuclear or non-nuclear – that we’ve got the stuff to actually use them.

Here is a quote from a policy paper issued in 1995, during the Reagan Administration: “Deterrence can’t be just a theory, a doctrine, a concept, a strategy….[It is] a process that goes beyond the rational…. It must affect the emotions, as well as the rational mind, of an adversary…we must communicate in the strongest ways possible the unbreakable link between our vital interests and the potential harm that will be directly attributable to anyone who damages (or even credibly threatens to damage) that which we hold of value…. Deterrence is thus a form of bargaining which exploits a capability for inflicting damage at such a level as to truly cause hurt far greater than military defeat…. It should ultimately create the fear of extinction…. A threat is most compelling when an enemy cannot rationalize away the destruction, pain, suffering, and chaos you are threatening to unleash if deterrence fails.” (“Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence,” 1995)

No longer a stance to prevent attack, “deterrence” has become a misnomer that actually means a threat, and it was apparently the intention of the Bush administration to make the threat credible.

What does this have to do with plutonium pit production at LANL? A great deal. As will be seen, “modernization” actually operates as a euphemism for creating those smaller, tactical and therefore useable nuclear weapons – bombs that would still be three times as powerful as the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.

Modernization is a sleight-of-hand solution to a tricky problem created by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which we signed in 1970 along with the majority of the world’s nations, both nuclear and non-nuclear. The NPT requires of nuclear powers that they cease to create new weapons and instead make moves to decrease their stockpiles.

It’s possible that we might not have complied with the treaty requirement, but with testing prohibited, it’s double jeopardy. Without testing, new designs might not be reliable. Hence it has been the official policy of the U.S. that we will not make new ones. But how can we fulfill the mandates of the Bush nuclear posture for smaller, tactical nuclear weapons without making new ones? That’s where modernization comes in – and new pits, which are the critical means for producing a credible nuclear force with weapons that are useable.

“The U.S. military is hard at work on a dizzying array of pricey new guided munitions to match its trillion-dollar investment in stealth fighters, bombers and killer drones. Some are super smart. Others, super fast. A few are designed to be tiny. All of them have one purpose: to blow away the target, and only the target.” (

“My favorite weapon in this list is the B61-12 GPS guided 50-kiloton mini-nuke bomb. If the idea of a mini-nuke striking somewhere in your country doesn’t make you surrender than [sic] you are probably hellbent on meeting those 72 virgins.” (Steve Gill)

Despite official U.S. policy of not making new nuclear weapons, writes Andrew Lichterman in the new book Assuring Destruction Forever (, the nuclear complex “is being modernized to provide the capacity to maintain existing nuclear weapons and to build new ones into the middle of the twenty-first century” — like the B61-12 that so inspires Tennessee talk show head Steve Gill.

This bomb is intended for placement on the $300 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter according to William D. Hartung, Director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New American Foundation and author of the recent book, Prophets of WarLockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

“Despite US claims that its modernization programmes will add no new military capabilities, the new B61 bomb, if built, will allow the targeting of a wide range of targets with more accurate, lower yield nuclear weapons,” continues Lichterman (emphasis added).

Recall that “lower yield” means more useable: He then quotes Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, who writes that “delivery [of this warhead] from new stealthy F-35 aircraft will provide additional military advantages such as improved penetration and survivability,” adding that the B61 replacement will achieve many of the goals of the low-yield nuclear weapons initiatives that Congress had limited or refused to fund during the Clinton and Bush administrations. It will “reinvigorate a planning culture that sees nuclear weapons as useable, and potentially lower the nuclear threshold in a conflict.” (emphasis added)

Needless to say, these warheads will require plutonium pits – possibly new plutonium pits designed to fit the model. Modernization will make use of what has been called Life Extension Programs (LEPs) as a cover for what amounts to new designs; an LEP “for the W78ICBM warhead is in the planning stages,” explains Lichterman, and “The LEP for the W88 SLBM warhead, the most modern nuclear weapon in the active stockpile, is expected to begin in the latter half of this decade. . . . The W80 cruise missile warhead is slated to get its LEP in the 2020s . . . .”

More plutonium pits, baby.

All modern nuclear warheads require plutonium pits. Clearly the Lab is going to make them come hell or high water, CMRR or no CMRR. This is what it’s all about: producing smaller, more reliable, more useable nuclear weapons. I can’t emphasize this enough. We are talking about enhanced capacity for nuclear attack.

The reason why U.S. nuclear policy has taken this shape despite Obama’s commitment to move toward nuclear disarmament is that Congress, with pressure from its constituents, has been unwilling to fund new weapons, which cannot be tested, and hence there have not been major weapons modifications for 19 years. A significant cluster of hawks, mostly Republican, and friendly military contractors like Lockheed Martin, are very worried about this situation, mumbling repeatedly about the deterioration of the arsenal; they ascribe to the view that without new weapons our national security will be jeopardized because other nuclear nations are upgrading their nuclear arsenals.

“Currently, all nations with nuclear weapons are modernizing their arsenals, delivery systems, and related infrastructure. These programs have serious implications for nuclear disarmament. By investing in the extension, upgrading, and reinforcement of their arsenals and capacities… these governments are investing in the future of nuclear weapons, not in the future of disarmament.” (Summary of paper by Ray Acheson, Executive Director of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, “Modernization of nuclear weapons: Aspiring to ‘indefinite retention’?” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

Fear leads to more fear, and weapons lead to weapons. Yes, it’s the arms race all over again, with everyone feeling threatened by other nations’ nuclear weaponry and scurrying to make some of their own. And while the arsenals of countries like Pakistan and North Korea, to say nothing of Iran’s much talked about but nonexistent bomb, pose no threat to the U.S. except in terms of regional dominance, Russia’s does.

Russia is understood to be modernizing its force because of U.S. insistence on placing its weapons missile shield in Europe.

This is the rubric used to justify $850 billion assigned to the modernization of the nuclear complex over the next 10 years, which Republican Congressmen insisted Obama must support or they would not vote to ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia (Arizona Senator John Kyl, who spearheaded this bargain, didn’t sign the Treaty anyway); and these are the weapons that require new plutonium pits.

Call it Mutually Assured Terror.

Needless to say, these considerations have not been part of the discussion at LANL’s friendly public meetings  on the CMRR. Occasional allusions are made to “deterrence” and “national security”, but public discussion of the B61-12 or the W87 or W88 retrofits is not heard. The debate thus far has hinged mainly on earthquake danger and high cost, significant concerns, but not the main concern. Nor is this a subject that receives widespread attention in the media. Hence public awareness of the new arms race is slight. People have other problems, after all, like mortgages and jobs.

William Hartung writes, in an article posted July 8, 2012 on Tom’s Dispatch, “Beyond Nuclear Denial 
How a World-Ending Weapon Disappeared From Our Lives, But Not Our World”:

“. . . the only nuke that Americans regularly hear about is one that doesn’t exist: Iran’s. The nearly 20,000 nuclear weapons on missiles, planes, and submarines possessed by Russia, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, China, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea are barely mentioned in what passes for press coverage of the nuclear issue.”

Right here at the foot of the Hill on which these weapons are designed and manufactured, there’s a disconnect between making plutonium pits, which most people oppose, and producing new nuclear weapons. That’s just the way the Lab would like it to be. In fact, it would like things to return to their former secrecy. After the CMRR debacle, when LANL was compelled to listen to activists at public meetings  held twice a year for seven years, there are already signs that the Lab may be tightening its lips.

During the last of those meetings, held on September 26, Steve Fong, NNSA’s Project Manager, kept responding to questions with the unenlightening news that he “can’t talk about it” now that “the project is closed.” And on October 1, the New Mexico Community Foundation revealed that LANL has taken back the management of RACER, the community database that was first established in 2003. It was mandated by a 2007 Settlement Agreement with New Mexico Environment Department to provide the public with information about Lab activities that affect the life of the community. Perhaps the Lab expects or knows that new staff at the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) appointed by our conservative governor will not press the issue.

After the CMRR debacle, it wouldn’t be surprising if LANL retreated back to its former secrecy. If so, that will make it even tougher for nuclear watchdog groups to bring the information to the public.

For Hartung, as for the rest of us, this is a very dangerous situation: “The notion that Iran can’t be trusted with such a weapon obscures a larger point: given their power to destroy life on a monumental scale, no individual and no government can ultimately be trusted with the bomb. The only way to be safe from nuclear weapons is to get rid of them — not just the Iranian one that doesn’t yet exist, but all of them. It’s a daunting task. It’s also a subject that’s out of the news and off anyone’s agenda at the moment, but if it is ever to be achieved, we at least need to start talking about it. Soon.”

The public needs to evaluate how it wants to spend its tax money. In these belt-tightening times, should we pay for Medicare, education, “entitlement programs” that create a safety net for citizens, or do we prefer to buy more useable nuclear weapons?

I ask you.


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