Nuclear Shenanigans Block Disarmament Progress


The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility (CMRR-NF) is dead, or at least comatose, but now another specter  is rising from its inert body, another way to manufacture more pits at the Laboratory on the Hill.

The unnamed modern pit facility proposed by the National Nuclear Security Administration, a subset of the Department of Energy, will consist of tunnels from the plutonium facility (PF4) to the Radiation Lab (RULAB), from which six or eight small labs and workrooms will branch off, like Brussels sprouts.

Touted as less expensive than its previous incarnation, this installation would have the same mission as CMRR. Deep down underground, in the volcanic tuff below the Pajarito Plateau where earthquakes loom, the Lab will be producing plutonium pits for two newly refurbished series of warheads that look very much like new nuclear weapons, the W 78-88, and the B-61.

Pits are the explosive, radioactive cores of nuclear warheads.

As before, the intent is to have the “capability” to produce 50-80 plutonium pits by 2030.  A delicate distinction is drawn by Don Cook, the newly appointed Acting Administrator for NNSA, between the  older approach of building “capacity,” to the  newer model of “capability.” In a talk at the Capitol Club last month, he explained this distinction:  “A capacity-based manufacturing plant might have several assembly lines, all doing the same thing in parallel, whereas a capability-based manufacturing plant would have a single assembly line.”

Like so many things nuclear, this distinction seems obscure. Different alignment, same result: more pits for re-designed nuclear weapons, more plutonium waste flowing into the canyons around the Lab, and more money flowing  into the willing hands of Bechtel and out into the pockets of politicians.

Like others who represent the nuclear establishment, Cook claims NNSA is merely meeting its obligation or commitment to fulfill “requirements” of some unnamed agency or body or regulation that generates the order, apparently alluding to a 2008 directive made under the Bush administration and no longer operative. When questioned as to the source of this requirement, officials do not reply.

These terms and phrases – modernization of the aging stockpile, preventing risks to the stockpile, ensuring a safe, reliable, and secure deterrent – are a routine part of the nuclear liturgy, endowing the discussion with allusions to august, indisputable principles that no one really understands but which have the additional feature of precluding argument. What precisely is the risk to the stockpile if we don’t modernize it immediately? What can be more meaningless than a “safe” nuclear weapon?

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, a fight is heating up as the National Defense Authorization bill, weighted with its markups and amendments, wends it way toward the floor of Congress this week.

Obsessed with the perceived need for nuclear weapons to maintain American status in the world, and bent on slapping Obama down at every juncture, Republicans in the House Armed Services committee put forth amendments that would keep the nuclear arms buildup on course. The very language used by some representatives  castigates the president as if he were the victim in a schoolyard confrontation. Referring to funds the President had requested for further arms negotiations with Russia, Representative Mike Rogers said, “The administration is calling for $75 million and we’re not going to give it to them unless they tell us what they’re going to do with it,” Rogers said (emphasis added).

A separate measure, also authored by Rogers, would limit the president’s ability to enter into any agreements with Russia to further reduce the arsenals.

In February of 2012 of 2012 President Obama was widely reported to have received Pentagon confirmation that reducing warheads by a third would not jeopardize the deterrent. But no formal action was taken, and more than a year later, this “implementation” agreement remains classified.

In rapid response to rumors that Obama would announce further arms reductions in his State of the Union address, Republicans on February 17, 2012, fired off an immediate statement of disapproval, rebuking the President for attempting to elude what the New York Times recently called the “Faustian bargain” he made in 2010 to spend $87 billion over the next 10 years modernizing the arsenal in exchange for  Republican  votes to ratify the New START Treaty.

“We are doubly concerned,” they wrote sanctimoniously, “that you have abandoned your pledge to support the U.S. nuclear weapons modernization program by your latest budget submission.”

Who would guess that we are not talking about an agreement to manufacture recliners or automobiles here, but weapons so powerful that nothing but bodies writhing in radioactive ash would remain as a result of their use?

A year later, in April of this year our disarmament president offered to cannibalize his nonproliferation program known as the Global Threat Reduction Initiative to help fund the development of new warheads. This program of securing nuclear materials loosely contained in countries like Mexico and Russia had been seen as a priority in the present global environment in which a terrorist with a dirty bomb is more likely than the “mutual assured destruction” scenario of the Cold War.

California Senator Diane Feinstein expressed deep regret over this shift of half a billion dollars from nonproliferation to weapons in her opening comments to the April 23 meeting of the Energy and Water Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, setting a stern tone to the assembly.

She expressed her lack of confidence in NNSA’s “ability to manage projects and provide necessary oversight of the contractors operating the national labs and sites,” in view of its past history of cost overruns and general mismanagement; and the cost is staggering.

Courtesy Los Alamos Study Group
Courtesy Los Alamos Study Group

“If this budget request were enacted,” she went on to say, “NNSA would make up 41 percent of the energy budget. The Fiscal Year 2014 funding level would be the same in adjusted dollars as what the United States spent in 1985, when the United States had 25,000 nuclear weapons, was conducting underground nuclear tests, and designing new weapons. None of that is true today.”

What is certainly true is that the NNSA budget request is several million dollars bigger than last year’s. To keep the dollars flowing in the direction of the contractors who manage the labs, NNSA plans to pump up the old B61 bomber with a new guided tail and other “modernizations” projected to cost up to $10 billion over the next decade. Called “gold plated”, this exorbitant remodeling of an old weapon unlikely to ever be used has been widely criticized even by the New York Times. In its May 26 editorial, “Throwing Money at Nukes,” the Times decried putting all this money into gravity nuclear bombs based in Europe, which “no military commander can conceive of ever being used.”

At the Arms Control Association, Tom Z. Collina quotes a more hopeful congressional staffer: “By the time these weapons are ready, will we still have nuclear weapons in Europe?”

And why do we have 400 nuclear warheads in Europe anyway?

Many things are unknown, said Greg Mello executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG), who recently returned from a week in Washington seeking information about this “interim proposal” for pit-making at the Lab, which previously had been known as Plan B. According to him, this plan is not a plan we can see.

“It lives in briefings,” said Mello, at a meeting held by the at the Santa Fe Women’s Club on May 9 that seemed, with its display of large graphs and charts, very much like a briefing, too.  His report on the latest doings in Washington alarmed many of the 30 people present.

“These plans are hidden in different parts of the budget. There is no EIS [Environmental Impact Statement], nothing you can get with a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act], and nothing to leak out to reporters. Congress is being asked to sign off on a pig in a poke, and yet they’re likely to do it. It’s what the White House wants.”

Mello remarked that “these people on the right are like Energizer bunnies; once they get started, you can’t stop them.” As for New Mexico’s congressional delegation, they always flurry to protect the interests of the labs. In February, Senators Udall and Heinrich and Congresspersons Lujan and Grisham all signed a letter to the president urging him to support funding for the B61 life extension program, and continue the “unique plutonium research at LANL.”

The hope is that NNSA is so flawed that it will soon implode like a building undergoing demolition. Fortunately, it shows some signs of doing so. “It’s collapsing,” Mello said in an interview at his Albuquerque home office, “and ROT is setting in.”

In his view, two things are contributing to the ultimate demise of the Agency. One is complexity, the other, cost.

“Spiraling costs mean that most of these grand warhead plans will come crashing down sooner or later.”

As for complexity, not only are the facilities enormously complex but the work is burdened by thousands and thousands of pages of designs, budgets, analyses and environmental reports, complex hierarchies of command, dozens of departments and agencies interfacing and conferencing and emailing and calling – and a technology that continues to exceed itself. “The complexity is tremendous,” he said.

Here are some of the recent debacles for which NNSA has been responsible:

1.    At Los Alamos, a $41 million or 20 percent cost overrun occurred last year for a security fence around the plutonium facility that still doesn’t work.
2.    At the Y-12 site in Tennessee, three protestors cut through four security fences, gaining access to a facility storing highly enriched uranium that was supposedly impregnable.
3.    At the Uranium Pit Facility, also in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, an improperly designed roof must be re-designed to be 13 feet higher, at a cost of $500 million. Worse yet, the facility might not be completed until 2034 and could cost up to 11.6 billion.
4.    At Livermore Lab, there are substantial cost over-runs at the Nuclear Ignition Facility (NIF) that still doesn’t quite work.

NNSA is “scared that if they don’t keep really, really busy and the staff falls below a certain level, they will forget how to do things”, Mello observed. “If it weren’t gold-plated, it would be difficult to get anyone to do it.  The perks are what make it attractive.”

Behind the curtain, pulling the strings, are the contractors.

For every dollar Bechtel gets, the company receives another dollar that goes to “overhead,” adding to their gross income. It’s a sweet deal. When things don’t work out, they go to the Pentagon to ask for more money. “It’s like asking Daddy,” said Mello. “But at some point Daddy is going to cut them off.”

Mello conveys a picture of an agency that will do anything it can to stay in business.

“We don’t believe much of what they say. In 2003 they said they had a lot of extra space in PF4 [the plutonium facility], then they denied it, they said we do not have it. Now they do have it.

“They wanted that [CMRR] building and they were willing to lie to get it; and we think they are lying now.”

Mello admits his vision of the future is dark. “The price of oil is weighing down the global economy, and it will continue to do so.” Money needed to shore up coastlines against storms is going to weapons work while dollars are clipped from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to support the Cold War fantasies of petty politicians. New Mexico is poor and getting poorer.

“Our congressional delegation is dedicating itself to a dying business. It never helped the state and it never will.”

Stephanie Hiller is an independent journalist and editor based in Santa Fe. She blogs at


  1. La Jicarita is fortunate to be able to publish a clear thinker and writer like Stephanie Hiller to keep its readers up to date on nuclear issues that affect not only New Mexicans but Planet Earth.

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