The Obama administration and Congress are faced with some important decisions regarding the US nuclear weapons complex in the next few years. Attempting to influence the powers that be, the Union of Concerned Scientists released an extensive 92-page report last week titled Making Smart Security Choices: The Future of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex. Co-authored by our Senior Science Fellow Phily Coyle, the report presents both a critical assessment of the current plans for the complex and a set of cost-effective and realistic recommendations to sustain its essential missions. Below are some of the major recommendations:
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) should refurbish existing nuclear weapon types rather than manufacture new weapon systems or new designs using existing parts. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) declared that United States “will not develop nuclear warheads”. The NNSA’s long-term strategy to modernize US nuclear warheads, also known as the “3+2” strategy, would result in the development of weapons that are “new” in every meaningful sense of the term. These new types would be seen as breaking the “no new” pledge and would have damaging international repercussions. In contrast, refurbishment of existing weapon types would comply with the NPR while providing a far more cost-effective alternative to the 3+2 plan.
Congress and the NNSA should make better use of non-nuclear testing of existing weapons to ensure their safety, reliability and security. The NNSA does not currently place a high enough value on the testing of different weapons systems, which is evident by the testing back log over the past decade. A lack of testing can increase the risk that defects in a weapon go undetected.
The ‘Stockpile Stewardship Program’ that helps the US gain a better understanding of how nuclear weapons work should be aligned with the needs of ongoing life extension programs. Some of the research conducted under this program is not directly related to ongoing life extension programs. Specifically, this entails reassessing the utility of a number of existing facilities including the Big Explosives Experimental Facility (BEEF) in Nevada and the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
Steps must be taken to minimize the risks associated with the disposal and storage of weapons-grade materials. The US currently possesses large stocks of plutonium and highly enriched uranium that it does not require for military purposes. These stocks represent a security risk insofar as they are liable to theft and can be used to build nuclear weapons. Highly enriched uranium stocks should be downblended to ensure they are no longer military grade, while plutonium stocks should be safely sealed within secure geological repositories.
The US should continue dismantling its nuclear warhead stockpile and provide adequate verification mechanisms. Reductions in the respective nuclear weapons stockpiles of the US and Russia strengthens US national security. The administration and Congress should ensure that the US has the capacity to safely disarm, while at the same time establishing adequate disarmament verification mechanisms. The infrastructure at the Pantex Plant in Texas where nuclear weapons are dismantled is aging and the NNSA, in light of this, should attempt to dismantle existing weapons quicker. Funding should also be increased for research on nuclear arms reduction verification and, more specifically, warhead-level verification.
Although the report doesn’t provide an exhaustive cost savings analysis of its recommendations, significant savings could clearly be found if these recommendation were implemented. Many programs and facilities mentioned for closure encompass costs in the billions of dollars. Such savings are surely welcome considering that the Obama administration plans on spending over $60 billion just for five warhead life extension programs over the next 25 years.
Both the administration and Congress would be wise to give these recommendations some serious consideration. Their implementation would lead to a more rational nuclear weapons complex by cutting extraneous facilities and programs that necessitate unnecessary costs while securing its long-term viability.