The U.S. plan to resume production of nuclear bombs by the year 2003, a cornerstone of national security policy in the post-Cold War era, appears headed for serious trouble, according to one of the nation’s top nuclear weapons managers.
The Clinton administration is not providing enough money for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to outfit a new bomb manufacturing plant and train skilled technicians to meet the 2003 deadline, Paul T. Cunningham, the lab’s stockpile management director, said Tuesday.
The new concerns raised by Los Alamos reflect the continuing sharp debate about the importance and role that nuclear weapons should play in U.S. national security. Disagreement remains over how to manage the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
If the United States fails to update its nuclear weapons complex and quickly restart limited production, international confidence in the U.S. nuclear deterrent could be undermined, experts said. Already, some members of Congress are questioning the safety and reliability of aging U.S. weapons, and any delays in the program would only increase those concerns.
The administration’s decision to end U.S. nuclear weapons testing last year was predicated on a political compromise that included upgrading the nation’s decrepit nuclear weapons plants. A serious delay in the work could threaten that compromise.
But Madelyn Creedon, the Energy Department’s associate deputy secretary for national security, said Tuesday that she does not expect the government to miss any deadlines for restarting nuclear production. Antinuclear critics, meanwhile, charged that Los Alamos officials are subjecting the public to “nuclear blackmail.”
The United States stopped making nuclear bombs in 1989, when serious safety and environmental problems plagued aging Energy Department facilities and the fading arms race made production less urgent.
But with the country planning to maintain a stockpile of about 6,000 nuclear bombs--down from a peak of more than 20,000--recent concerns about the weapons’ safety and reliability in the absence of underground testing have led to a new effort to modernize the weapons complex.
The Energy Department plans to spend $40 billion over the next decade to breathe new life into the so-called stockpile stewardship program. Although antinuclear critics scoff at the notion that that is not enough money, the plan includes major new scientific instruments and industrial plants. Newly made bombs would replace obsolete weapons in the stockpile.
Among the most challenging elements of the program is new production of plutonium pits, the nuclear triggers that set off fusion reactions in bombs. Until the early 1990s, when serious safety and environmental problems forced the shutdown of the Rocky Flats nuclear plant, all the country’s plutonium pits were built at that Colorado facility.
The Energy Department plan calls for Los Alamos to demonstrate the ability to make a fully certified plutonium pit in 1998 and to be ready for sustained production of up to 50 nuclear bombs a year by 2003. But Los Alamos officials have told the department that both of those goals are in jeopardy, Cunningham said.
However, a series of key investments at Los Alamos, including upgrades to its TA-55 plutonium facility, were not included in the Clinton administration’s fiscal 1998 budget, Cunningham said.
The disclosure of potential snags in the program is sure to increase already-heated congressional criticism of the administration’s handling of nuclear weapons policy.
A report by the House National Security Committee charged last year that the current stockpile plan “entails significant technological risks and uncertainties” and has led to a dramatic decline of U.S. capabilities.
“The administration’s laissez-faire approach to stewardship of the nuclear stockpile is clearly threatening the nation’s long-term ability to maintain a safe and reliable nuclear stockpile,” said committee Chairman Floyd Spence (R-S.C.).
Cunningham noted that Los Alamos already has cut out a number of important technical upgrades for maintaining bombs, including a new liquid carbon dioxide cleaning system for plutonium. If the proposed 1998 budget is adopted, Los Alamos will be forced to delay the schedule.
“The money in the 1998 budget is not adequate in our judgment,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham said that the United States has lost considerable bomb-making skills in the eight years since it stopped making the nuclear devices. The Los Alamos lab, for example, has the only four people in the United States capable of fabricating a plutonium pit for a nuclear device, he said.
“We are very shallow in a lot of areas,” Cunningham said.
Meanwhile, Russia, China, France and Great Britain never stopped producing nuclear weapons, Cunningham noted.
Creedon, the Energy official, said she believes that the Energy Department funding for Los Alamos is adequate for the lab to demonstrate next year that it can build a plutonium pit. As for the capability to sustain production in 2003, Creedon called that a “long-term issue” and noted that the United States faces no shortage of pits.