Administration Plans to Shrink U.S. Nuclear Arms Program

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Bush administration yesterday announced its intention to modernize and sharply reduce the size of the nation's aging nuclear weapons program by closing or abandoning 600 buildings at facilities across the country and gradually reducing the associated workforce by at least 7,200.

The plan, which requires congressional approval, would substantially shrink operations at some of the most storied sites for bomb-building during the Cold War, including a Tennessee plant that enriched uranium for thousands of nuclear arms over the past half-century and a California laboratory where the hydrogen bomb was refined.

But it would also leave key parts of the U.S. nuclear weapons program intact, including research centers where scientists study the effects of nuclear blasts, monitor how existing warheads are faring and examine potential designs for new warheads. Nearly 30,000 people would continue to be employed in nuclear-arms-related work.

"Today's nuclear weapons complex needs to move from the outdated, Cold War complex into one that is smaller, safer and less expensive," Thomas P. D'Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which runs the weapons program, told reporters yesterday.

The reductions are an outgrowth of Energy Department studies that began in the mid-1990s. At first, 12 weapons-related sites were reduced to eight. After the administration signed a nuclear reduction treaty with Moscow in 2003, NNSA officials began looking at how to resize the production complex to match a smaller arsenal.

Post-2001 worries about terrorism provided a further impetus to consolidate activities and shrink the acreage of key sites, so that the Energy Department could better defend them. NNSA spends about $800 million each year for security, an amount that it wants to reduce.

D'Agostino also announced that President Bush has approved a new reduction of 15 percent in active U.S. nuclear weapons, which is scheduled to be completed by 2012. Those reductions will leave the active stockpile at "less than one-quarter its size at the end of the Cold War," White House press secretary Dana Perino said yesterday.

Several independent experts said yesterday that roughly 4,600 warheads will remain in the U.S. arsenal, down from about 16,000 at the end of the Cold War and from 10,500 when Bush came into office. President George H.W. Bush eliminated thousands of tactical nuclear weapons, mostly ones placed in Europe and Asia.

While the overall size of the arsenal is classified, NNSA officials confirmed that only 1,700 to 2,200 of the remaining warheads will be deployed with bombers, missiles, and submarines, as agreed in a treaty with Moscow in 2003. The remaining active weapons will be kept as spares and for testing with delivery systems.

Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists called the 15 percent cut announced yesterday "a bookkeeping event," since the number of warheads deployed with bombers, missiles, and submarines will not be substantially reduced, including the number kept on 24-hour alert. He also noted that the weapons taken out of the active stockpile will be transferred from the Defense Department to the Energy Department for storage but will not be dismantled.

Under the larger reduction proposal, which could take a decade to implement, the Oak Ridge, Tenn., facility, which produced weapons-grade uranium for the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, would gain a building complex but would lose almost 90 percent of its acreage. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, established in 1952 at the urging of physicist Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, and now surrounded by suburban sprawl, would close a test site and reduce the quantity of sensitive nuclear material it stores. That would enable its nuclear-related acreage to shrink by 90 percent. Livermore would also build a new facility for nuclear design and engineering, as well as one for research and development of high explosives.

The Pantex Plant, near Amarillo, Tex., where nuclear weapons are both assembled and disassembled, would not be as sharply affected. The plan proposes new buildings for assembly and disassembly of weapons, as well as a new high-explosives facility. Staff reductions at Pantex are projected to range between 5 and 10 percent -- less than half those projected for some other facilities in the nuclear complex.

Another facility that would not substantially change is the Savannah River plant in South Carolina, where tritium -- a key gas component of thermonuclear weapons -- is produced. A staff reduction of 5 percent or less is forecast there.

D'Agostino said agreement by Congress to eliminate funding for the next-generation Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which the Bush administration has long backed, would not affect plans for extensive modernization of the complex. The plan still faces public hearings and must go through an environmental impact review.

"We must . . . stop pouring money into an old, Cold War-era nuclear weapons complex that is too big, too expensive, and doesn't offer updated and safer ways of maintaining our nuclear stockpile," D'Agostino said. He added that he has already discussed the plan on Capitol Hill and believes it could be carried out without substantial changes to the NNSA budget.

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