Championing Responsible National Security Policy

New Report Offers Smart Choices for Nuke Weapons Complex

What are the challenges and decisions facing the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) today and in the future? Which NNSA programs truly require the billions of dollars appropriated annually and which are wasteful money pits? And why is the United States spending $60 billion over the next quarter century to replace the nuclear stockpile with a suite of newly designed weapons when President Obama has established policy to reduce the nuclear arsenal?

These are the questions the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has addressed in a new report, Making Smart Security Choices: The Future of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex.

This report reviews, in a comprehensive manner, America’s nuclear stockpile surveillance and stewardship programs, which work to maintain the safety, security, and effectiveness of U.S. nuclear weapons, and takes an in-depth look at the NNSA’s nuclear weapons modernization plan. Currently, the United States maintains seven different types of nuclear weapons, some of which must be refurbished in order to remain safe. However, the NNSA’s new plan, dubbed “3+2,” would replace the nuclear warheads currently in the stockpile with five significantly modified weapon designs.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) identified several problems with this plan, the most concerning of which is that creating new weapon types could be seen as going against the Obama Administration’s declaration that the U.S. will not develop any new nuclear weapons, but instead will rely on designs that have already been tested.

The new report notes that “such modifications to the nuclear explosive package that deviate from previously tested designs could reduce the reliability of the weapon. Making extensive modifications would also increase the cost of the life extension program.”

In addition to the weapons themselves, UCS also examined the facilities that support the production and maintenance of the nuclear stockpile and identified several wasteful and redundant NNSA programs and facilities. For instance, UCS found that the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement – Nuclear Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a facility for nuclear plutonium pit production that exponentially increased in cost, is not required to support the NNSA’s mission. Both POGO and UCS have stated that plans for its construction should be canceled.

The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site is another example the Union of Concerned Scientists points to of a wasteful nuclear weapons-related construction project. The facility would convert weapons-grade plutonium into mixed oxide fuel for use in nuclear power reactors, but costs have increased from $1.6 billion to $6.8 billion, the program lost its only customer, and “no other willing partners have emerged” due to concerns over the safety of using this material. UCS also identified several security issues with this plutonium disposition plan and that “the manufacture, transport, and storage of MOX fuel at reactor sites would therefore increase the risk of nuclear terrorism.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists’ report also echoed several of the concerns about the Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 Complex in Tennessee that POGO recently raised in its report, Uranium Processing Facility: When You’re in a Hole, Just Stop Digging. UCS also recommended that construction on this facility should be delayed until the NNSA and Congress can adequately and publicly explain what production capability will be required of this new building.

The Union of Concerned Scientists found that the billions of dollars which are poured into these unnecessary facilities every year could instead be used to support NNSA programs that desperately require attention. One such program is the Stockpile Surveillance Program, which is supposed to regularly assess the reliability and safety of U.S. nuclear weapons. However, according to UCS, “the NNSA has not given the Stockpile Surveillance Program the priority it deserves. Continuing on that path could lead to a lack of information on how the stockpile is aging.”

POGO shares many of the concerns raised in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ thorough report. A vigilant and watchful eye from Congress and the public is required to make sure the NNSA meets its stated missions without going overboard. As the Union of Concerned Scientists put it: “The goal is to create a complex that is viable for as long as required, but without unneeded capabilities or facilities.”