A special task force appointed by the energy secretary sharply criticized the aging U.S. nuclear weapons production complex yesterday and the lack of unified vision in how the Pentagon and the Energy Department agree on nuclear weapons needs and carry out their design and production.
The six-member panel, in its draft report, recommended construction of a modern nuclear production center that would consolidate all production, manufacturing and assembly of nuclear weapons in one location, instead of the five that exist today. The group called for bringing together all primary and secondary components for the weapons at that same complex so special nuclear materials would be at one site, thereby limiting targets for terrorist attacks.
The current complex keeps plutonium and highly enriched uranium, key nuclear materials, at six sites, a situation that the panel said "increases the number of potential targets within this country, exposing the complex and the surrounding civilian population to risk."
The new approach would eventually cut down the roles of the three national laboratories that design weapons: Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico, and Lawrence Livermore in California.
The panel found that the current policy to extend the life of the Cold War nuclear weapons stockpile through modernization "will eventually result in old weapons with some new components . . . that will require an extensive and ever-more-costly maintenance program."
The answer, according to the panel, is to proceed with design and production of a new family of nuclear weapons under "a new version" of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, now before Congress. "This family of weapons will form the basis of the sustainable stockpile of the future that will replace the current Cold War stockpile," the panel's report said.
The panel found that there is no "unified interdependent nuclear weapons enterprise vision or set of mission priorities," something that has developed because the Defense Department "does not provide the Energy Department with unified and integrated weapon requirements."
Yesterday, at a public symposium at the National Academy of Sciences on the 60th anniversary of "Trinity," the first atomic bomb test, Linton F. Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, called for support of the current RRW program, which involves producing new parts. He said his program could begin producing a smaller, safer warhead without the need for nuclear testing by 2012 to 2015.
The panel's report drew a quick response from Capitol Hill. Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that controls the nuclear complex budget, praised the labs and said, "I do not think we should rush into any quick fixes." To back up his view, he included language in next year's appropriation bill to prohibit funds from being used to implement any of the task force's recommendations.