House Appropriators Weigh Future of Nuclear Weapons Complex

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Publication date: 
31 March 2009

“Today, we are going to examine how best to maximize the efficiency and minimize the cost of the nuclear weapons complex,” House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Peter Visclosky (D-IN) said at a hearing earlier this month.   As this hearing demonstrated, finding answers on how to do this will not be easy, involving current and future national security needs, the replacement of billions of dollars of worn-out  facilities, and the recruitment of a new generation of scientists to work in the nation’s weapons laboratories.

“We can say with confidence that President Obama’s stockpile plan will be different from that which we see today” said Visclosky.  That, in addition to technical changes and international arms control agreements will “drive this evolution,” added the chairman.   Ranking Member Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) opened by cautioning that today’s “hot topics” of climate change, jobs, renewable energy, and green technologies should not “overshadow” what he called the Department of Energy’s core mandate to “ensure that our nuclear stockpile remains safe, reliable, secure . . . and yes, smaller.”  Decisions made in the next few years could reverberate for many decades he said.

The first witness was National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Thomas D’Agostino, who described  “our vision for a smaller, safer, more secure, and less expensive enterprise that leverages our scientific capabilities of our workforce to met our national security needs.”  He explained that the U.S. stockpile will be less than 25 percent of what its size was at the end of the Cold War, a position that “sends the right message to the rest of the world” at a 2010 nonproliferation treaty review conference.  D’Agostino spoke of aggressive efforts in the last three years to review the nation’s nuclear enterprise, listing as priorities the restructuring of very costly facilities for special nuclear material, restructuring of major R&D facilities, and processing facilities.  He described facilities that are fifty to sixty years old, exclaiming “We must act now to adapt for the future and stop pouring money into an old Cold War weapons complex that is too big and too expensive.”  At the same time, he said “people are our most important resource.”

The second witness was Everet Beckner, former NNSA deputy administrator for defense program, who aptly summarized the major question confronting policymakers: “It’s become obvious to all that the complex is too large for the world. . . .   But the question is what can you do to protect the country, so that you can assure the president that you have a nuclear weapons capability second to none and that can be responsive, that is safe, secure and reliable . . . with a smaller budget.”   The Nuclear Posture Review will be instrumental in answering these questions, although it will not be released for about six months.   Beckner called  for further study of three plutonium and uranium facilities that will each cost at least two billion dollars, saying “the budget cannot swallow those three projects as presently aligned.”  He spoke of DOE’s civilian side paying part of the costs of Lawrence Livermore’s National Ignition Facility, whose completion was certified today.

Also testifying was Richard Garwin, the former chairman of the Arms Control and Nonproliferation Advisory Board, who spoke of the importance of the forthcoming report from the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States.  He described the advantages of a smaller stockpile, but stressed the need of investing in the future workforce.  He contends that simulation and other experiments will provide increased knowledge and a deeper understanding of nuclear weapons than that provided by nuclear testing.

Philip Coyle, the former associate director of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, testified that recent policy pronouncements by the Obama Administration and the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review will significantly impact the weapons complex transformation effort and its related costs.  The administration’s decision to halt work on the Reliable Replacement Warhead will cut the production workload by half.  Coyle told the committee that a high capacity plutonium pit production facility is not necessary.

The final witness was A. J. Eggenberger, chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, who in a brief statement warned of “unsound facilities across the complex,” calling the improvement of nuclear operations “a good bang for the buck.”

Responding to these opening statements, Visclosky spoke of how a new strategic policy would define the number of required warheads, which in turn would characterize the complex.  Resulting spending could be more, or less, than it is today.  An investment in a “rationalized complex” could result in lower costs to the taxpayer.

Later in the hearing,  D’Agostino was asked what decisions the subcommittee could make now about the weapons complex, and which ones should be deferred until the Obama Administration makes a decision about the size of U.S. nuclear forces.  D’Agostino responded that it was important for design work to continue, and cautioned against “pouring concrete” because “it’s hard to back off from that.”  He spoke of the importance of locking down cost, schedule, and scope.  D’Agostino said he has “enough flexibility right now” and predicted that the “real issue” will be settled next year when Congress considers the FY 2011 budget.

Administrator D’Agostino made an important point later in the hearing when called for a shift away from the Cold War view of the nuclear weapons complex to a  nuclear security enterprise view that includes nonproliferation, nuclear forensics and device attribution, intelligence analysis and emergency response.  He spoke of how important the workforce will be, and said “the country is going to need that well out into the future and there is a good career there.”

As Chairman Visclosky concluded the hearing he stressed the importance of reaching a consensus on nuclear weapons strategy that is flexible enough to adapt to future changes in the world, and that will be accepted by future administrations and future Congresses of either party  “because we can’t, with a complex like this, be bouncing around every couple of years.”

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