Nuclear Security Official Hints at Leaner, Less Costly Weapons Complex

An enormous column of water rises from the sea as the United States tests an atom bomb underwater on Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1946. The Democratic Congress has established a commission to propose a nuclear strategy for the future, and its report is due out later this year.
An enormous column of water rises from the sea as the United States tests an atom bomb underwater on Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1946. The Democratic Congress has established a commission to propose a nuclear strategy for the future, and its report is due out later this year. (Associated Press)
By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The best status report on the U.S. nuclear weapons program and its future was delivered last Tuesday at a session of the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development, where the head of the program declared, "We must stop pouring money into an old, Cold War complex that is too big and too expensive."

The speaker was Thomas P. D'Agostino, who heads the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the nuclear weapons complex and is a carryover from the Bush administration. As he had done before, D'Agostino pressed Congress to fund "urgent" change, while acknowledging that President Obama will favor a reduction in the nuclear weapons stockpile.

For example, he noted that over the past two years, the projection of the number of new plutonium triggers that will be needed to keep the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile reliable and secure has steadily dropped from 450 a year to 20.

D'Agostino, a former Navy officer, told the subcommittee that he had made the production decision "that we would not exceed the minimum capacity, which was up to 20 pits," the industry name for plutonium triggers, per year, while awaiting Obama's decision on the future size of the stockpile.

During the Bush administration, the number of deployed strategic warheads was sharply reduced, from 6,000 to between 1,700 and 2,200 projected for 2012. At the same time, however, there were extensive plans for a major modernization and consolidation of the Cold War nuclear-weapons-production complex, including construction of a multibillion-dollar facility to build plutonium pits and production of a new generation of more secure nuclear warheads.

The Democratic Congress halted the warhead program and established a commission to propose a nuclear strategy for the future, which is due out this year. The Obama Defense Department is just beginning its own nuclear policy review, which will determine how nuclear forces fit within the Pentagon's broader national security strategy. The president and his National Security Council will use these studies to set the size of the future nuclear stockpile.

D'Agostino told the lawmakers that 20 pits a year would meet current needs and that he had delayed any further decisions affecting the complex "until the nuclear posture review, because we recognized that that could potentially drive some infrastructure changes."

Among the other pending decisions, he said, were replacing Cold War-era uranium facilities at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and plutonium facilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The plan had been to build a new uranium processing facility at Oak Ridge to replace buildings, some of which date to the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bombs in the 1940s. However, as Everet H. Beckner, a former senior National Nuclear Security Administration official, told the panel, the planned facility's workspace was "at least 25 percent too big" because "the design was started several years ago, when the workload appeared to be considerably larger than now appears to be the case."

Plans are also underway to close the Chemical and Metallurgy Research Building at Los Alamos, which dates from the 1950s and handled plutonium research and production, and build a replacement. D'Agostino said this was part of an effort to limit where sensitive nuclear materials, such as plutonium, are stored.

"The thing I want to do is actually reduce the amount of plutonium capability in the country by shutting down plutonium capability at Lawrence Livermore [National Laboratory in California] and bringing it to Los Alamos," he added.

Asked what decisions should be made this year and what should be delayed until Obama develops a new policy regarding the size of the U.S. nuclear forces, D'Agostino said: "I think my approach would be to continue on with the design work. . . . And our projects -- the nuclear facility and the uranium processing facility -- have some more design work that has to get done." In the end, he said, the "real issue" for congressional appropriators would have to be confronted next year while preparing the fiscal 2011 budget, when the complex will need commitment of "large amounts of resources in certain areas."

Though no one could say for sure where the new administration will come down on the question of the size of the nuclear stockpile, D'Agostino said there "will be probably reduced numbers of what we have now, and maybe at some future date we'll bring in some warheads that are much safer and much more secure than the ones we have now -- but again, the general trend is going down."

"But," he added, "there will be, and I think President Obama has said this, a deterrent, and we do plan on maintaining it."


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