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Washington Post Series on U.S. Nuclear Arsenal Requires Closer Look

Two weeks ago, The Washington Post ran a two-part series by Dana Priest examining the current U.S. nuclear arsenal and the cost of modernizing it. The first part, “Aging U.S. nuclear arsenal slated for costly and long-delayed modernization,” focused on the long delays and rising costs of modernizing U.S. nuclear warheads and facilities. The second, “The B61 bomb: A case study in costs and needs,” focused specifically on the oldest nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal, the B61. In both articles, the extraordinary cost of modernizing and maintaining our stockpile of nuclear warheads is highlighted. However, there is a significant lack of context in the articles: they heavily quote nuclear weapons complex officials who have strong bureaucratic interest in promoting the notion that our nuclear arsenal is outdated and unreliable unless more money is poured into programs, even though that view is not supported by any concrete data.

We don't need to spend over $350 billion building unnecessary nuclear Taj Mahals and refurbishing far more warheads than the U.S. intends to maintain in the nuclear stockpile. Instead, we should be investing in real national security priorities that meet the needs of our troops and address the realities of our modern world, not in the ghosts of a Cold War that has been over for more than 20 years.

Several of the points made in the “Aging” article require further examination and context so that a complete picture of the nuclear weapons arsenal can be presented.

• The Post explicitly states that “the nuclear arsenal has not entirely escaped cuts.” In fact, the nuclear arsenal remains one of the few programs that have escaped budget cuts. Since 2009, funding for the NNSA has actually increased by 13 percent and in a February congressional hearing NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino said that the FY2013 budget would be sufficient to maintain the nuclear stockpile: “…it absolutely does, fully meets the requirements, and we’ll be able to take care of the stockpile….So the stockpile is safe, secure and reliable.”

• The Post writes about the “price tag for the effort to upgrade and maintain the 5,113 warheads in the inventory,” but ignores the fact that the U.S. is in the process of dismantling a substantial number of those warheads in order to comply with the New START Treaty. Under this treaty, both Russia and the U.S. must each reduce their deployed warheads to 1,550 in six years, by 2018. Therefore there is no need to refurbish the majority of the warheads currently in the arsenal.

Furthermore, half of the warheads needing refurbishment have already gone through life extension programs (LEPs), which overhaul the weapons and extend their life by up to 30 years. The other half will be nearing completion by the time any new production plants could be operational. Construction of new facilities could actually take away resources from the LEPs.

• Words and phrases such as “decrepit,” “aging,” “neglected,” and “long-delayed modernization” are repeatedly used in the article, creating an impression of a nuclear stockpile in disarray. However, each year the government conducts a surveillance program of each type of warhead to determine if there is any degradation. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) letter describes this process:

The annual assessment process takes about 14 months to complete—during which time the nuclear weapons community collaborates on technical issues affecting the safety, reliability, performance, and military effectiveness of the stockpile—and produces seven different types of reports. The annual assessment process culminates in the “Report on Stockpile Assessments” prepared by the NWC [Nuclear Weapons Council, a joint DoD/DoE organization], which includes an executive summary, a joint letter signed by the Secretaries of Energy and Defense, and unaltered copies of the weapons laboratory director reports and the Commander of USSTRATCOM report.

Given that the arsenal has gone through this exhaustive process and been certified safe and reliable every year, it is remarkable that the article implies otherwise with no commentary from experts who could have assuaged concerns.

• The Post reports the Obama Administration says that safety requires the replacement of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) plant at Los Alamos. But in fact the Administration, including the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), has taken the position that the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) is unnecessary for the time being. NNSA has “determined, in consultation with the national laboratories, that the existing infrastructure in the nuclear complex has the inherent capacity to provide adequate support for these missions. Studies are ongoing to determine long‐term requirements.” The article states that the replacement of the “crumbling plutonium testing facility [CMR] at Los Alamos” was deferred because of spending limits, but the replacement facility was actually deferred because the NNSA realized it wasn’t needed until 2028.

• The article states that the mission of Building 9212 at Y-12 is “deemed vital” and that “nuclear experts say the building should have been replaced years ago.” But there is actually still a great deal of debate on the extent of the problems at Building 9212 and the need to replace it with a $7 billion uranium processing facility (UPF). There are other, cheaper options than replacing the entire facility. The problems with Building 9212 were examined in a 2010 Project On Government Oversight report, which found that “renovating Building 9212 may be a better alternative for modernizing the complex than waiting for UPF to be completed. NNSA has already invested at least $400 million in renovating Building 9212; and even though other ‘major investments’ would be necessary ‘for continued operations in the existing facilities,’ those investments are unlikely to even begin to approach the cost of building a new facility.”

• The Post states that “250 contractors moved into Los Alamos last year and tractors dug out 160,000 cubic feet of volcanic tuff rock from the side of a hill” in order to begin working on a new nuclear facility. Yet, according to sources on the ground in Los Alamos and supported by Google satellite images, there was no excavation at Los Alamos last year, and there hasn’t been excavation at the site since 2009.

• The fact that the article is wrong about the walls of the highly enriched uranium materials facility (HEUMF) at Y-12 being 30 feet thick when in fact they are only 2 feet thick, is more significant than it may appear. (The building rests on a 30-foot slab, which may be where the number comes from.) POGO has repeatedly raised concerns about the security of the HEUMF, and the fact that 2-foot-thick walls are easily penetrable by a number of explosives. Given that an 82-year-old nun and two other activists successfully breached security at this facility, this is no laughing matter. Had they been terrorists armed with a backpack of explosives, the result would have been catastrophic.

In the end, it is one sentence that seems to capture the spirit of the Post article: “For their part, many anti-nuclear activists favor disarmament by atrophy, which would mean not repairing or extending the life span of the current arsenal.” If the Post had expanded the universe of people it consulted for the series, it would have found that there are many—including former officials of the nuclear complex—who, along with POGO, are not anti-nuclear yet who believe strongly that throwing more money at the arsenal does not advance our national security, but instead only fuels the self-perpetuating goals of the contractors that run the labs.

(Some of the issues with the Post series were first noted by the Los Alamos Study Group. Here is their take: Washington Post Misleads in Major Article Addressing Nuclear Weapons Complex.)

POGO contacted Dana Priest to offer her the opportunity to provide comments or corrections to our points. Her response is below.


Response from Dana Priest

First bullet: As the article states, the changes to this year's budget request reflects "cuts" to funds that had been proposed previously, including the much-debated CMRR (now delayed five years, at least) which the administration asserted was necessary (for all sorts of reasons) until this year. Then they found alternatives.

Second bullet: Contrary to your note, the story does refer to the New START treaty, its 1,550 goal and the timetable for that goal. The 5,113 number is still the official number since the actual number of warheads dismantled is classified and I was unable to find it out anyway.

On LEPs, according to NNSA, 20 percent of the arsenal has undergone renovations, not 50 percent. This could well be a matter of definition but I took great pains to make sure I was not over- or understating the figure.

Third bullet: These adjectives can all be found in numerous government reports, including the Nuclear Safety Board's, as well as in on-the-record congressional testimony. And they certainly reflect the conditions I saw in the buildings I visited. But note, the story did not state there were grave safety problems and explained why. "Neglected" and "Long-delayed modernization" comes from precisely the context you say the story lacks: years and years of budget proposals, site studies and debates, etc. "Aging" is very obvious when you look at the year warheads and facilities were built, and the technology they were made with.

Four bullet: The administration did, in fact, argue for the CMRR until the budget crisis this year, which is also reflected in the story near the end when it says the administration decided it could not afford both the CMRR and 9212 so it came up with Plan B for the CMRR.

Fifth bullet: The story says that NNSA's studies show that 9212 is vital and the article uses examples from that study.

Sixth bullet: As the article states, I toured the facility, hence was "on the ground" and interviewed officials, saw the equipment, etc. Moreover, the point of the example was to say that the administration had to come up with an alternative to their plans because of the Budget Control Act. And not for other reasons.

Seventh bullet: I will double check the 30-foot thick walls. But as you know, the four protesters got by the perimeter security, not into the building.

Finally, contrary to the statement in the note, I consulted a widerange of people for the story. The bottom line is this: if the government is to maintain the triad (the status quo), this is what the government says it will cost to do so. Where the government did not have estimates (for the total cost, for example) I used another organization, in this case the Stimson Center.


Dana Priest