Over the past year, the president has been calculating his next nuclear step. Civilian and military advisers have presented him with countless options as he sets more precise guidelines that military planners will translate into intricate targeting plans.
The White House declined to comment on the president’s strategic direction, but some government officials and outside experts said they believe he favors renewed talks with the Russians to drop the warhead total from 1,550 to 1,100. Few, however, expect any announcement until after the presidential election in November.
All of the president’s decisions, from the broad nuclear structure to the number of warheads and the top-secret target list, cascade through the nuclear establishment, affecting the types of weapons and delivery systems that must be available to meet the objectives.
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. For now, the administration and its supporters argue that the country must maintain its nuclear assets as long as other nations are nuclear-armed.
Still, a growing number of former senior administration officials from both parties argue that more substantial cuts would encourage nonnuclear states to abandon their nuclear ambitions, making the world safer from political miscalculations and saving money for defense items that are actually used.
Among the members of this eclectic group are former Reagan administration officials George Shultz, Robert “Bud” McFarlane and Frank Carlucci; Clinton’s former defense secretary William Perry and ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering; and retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Obama and a former commander of U.S. nuclear forces.
“There are a growing number of my peers on the uniformed military side, and especially among civilian analysts and those on the policy side,” who believe a smaller and more modern force is appropriate, Cartwright said in an interview. “What we have is way more than what we need.”
The nuclear arsenal has not entirely escaped cuts. To comply with the new Budget Control Act spending limits, the NNSA decided this year that it could not afford to replace both the crumbling plutonium testing facility at Los Alamos for $6 billion and the deteriorating uranium processing facility in Building 9212 at Oak Ridge for $6.5 billion.
The NNSA chose to rehab Building 9212 because there was no alternative site where the critical work carried out there could be performed.
So, after 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, NNSA and the administration decided that building a new plutonium-testing site would be delayed five years. The crews stopped work. The tractors were idled. A new reality sank in.
That new reality means some of the plutonium will be shipped to other facilities. Every couple of days, a UPS truck will deliver a dime-size slice of plutonium to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 45 miles east of San Francisco. Larger quantities of plutonium will be carried by secure vans to the Nevada National Security Site northwest of Las Vegas. Plutonium remaining at Los Alamos will be hand-delivered via an underground tunnel from one building to another.
The tunnel is being upgraded, and renovations are underway at Livermore and the Nevada site to handle the plutonium. Officials estimate the changes in the three locations will cost an additional $650 million over the next five years.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.