By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 4, 2006
The Bush administration plans to speed up the dismantling of old, retired nuclear warheads in coming years, in part to counter any impression that the United States is starting a new arms race with its work to develop a new generation of more reliable nuclear arms, according to U.S. officials.
Members of Congress have been pressuring the administration to step up the pace of dismantling the estimated 4,000 to 6,000 non-operational warheads in the stockpile. The exact numbers are classified, but congressional and administration sources say that in recent years fewer than 100 warheads have been taken apart annually.
"Dismantlements are a key element of our strategy to ensure that stockpile and infrastructure transformation is not misperceived by other nations as 'restarting the arms race,' " Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell told a House Appropriations subcommittee last week. He added that dismantlements are "very important for the arms-control reasons and for our own credibility," and as a result, "we must dismantle at a much greater rate than we have in the last few years."
Sell said that the National Nuclear Security Administration will "increase by 50 percent the number of nuclear warheads it dismantles next year."
Asked for an elaboration, Bryan Wilkes, an NNSA spokesman, said that there has been a "shift in emphasis to a more robust and structured dismantlement program" and that the increased focus "will be evident" in the budget sent to Congress next year. "Actual dismantlement quantities are classified as they may reveal stockpile quantities," Wilkes added.
Before October 1999, dismantlements were made public. That year, the budget for fiscal 2000 projected that 120 warheads would be taken apart in 2003.
One reason for the slow pace is that Pantex, the government production facility near Waco, Tex., could not handle much of the work while it is refurbishing thousands of operational nuclear weapons, officials said.
"There is not much dismantlement going on," Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio) said in an interview yesterday, adding that the plant has encountered some difficulty in its program to refurbish and extend the useful life of warheads. "They only turned to dismantling when the production lines working on the life-extension program ran into trouble," he said.
Disassembly is a sensitive operation that can take two weeks per weapon. Because of the potential for explosion, it is performed in reinforced rooms at Pantex.
Hobson, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that handles the NNSA, is the father of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which the Bush administration has adopted as the basis for developing a new generation of warheads more than a decade from now.
By the end of the year, the government plans to select a design for the warheads that would be more dependable and perhaps able to be disarmed if they fell into terrorist hands, officials have said. The new warheads would be based on nuclear technology that has already been tested, which means they could be produced without additional underground testing.
Hobson has been pushing the Defense and Energy departments to begin dismantling older warheads and retiring some currently deployed systems before they enter the costly refurbishment program.
For example, $700 million has been allocated to refurbish the W80, the nuclear warhead for the sea-based cruise missile. About 350 of the missiles are stored ashore, not on ships, while the Navy decides whether it wants to keep them in its arsenal. The start of the refurbishment program has already been delayed three years, and Hobson said that money could be used for the RRW program if the Navy decides it no longer needs the W80.
"The Defense Department never wants to get rid of anything," Hobson said, "but they ought to take out the whole W80 system." He said the W84 warhead, built for the Air Force ground-based cruise missile, is still in storage, "although there is no missile on which it can be carried."
But Dale Klein, assistant to the defense secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, said at last week's hearing: "We're reluctant to give up a lot of the nuclear weapons in the stockpile unless we see the capability to manufacture new ones."