Nuclear Posture Review Calls for Investments in Science and Technology, Infrastructure and Workforce

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Publication date: 
7 April 2010

“As I stated last year in Prague, so long as nuclear weapons exist, we will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal that guarantees the defense of the United States, reassures allies and partners, and deters potential adversaries.  To that end, we are seeking substantial investments to improve infrastructure, strengthen science and technology, and retain the human capital we need to sustain our stockpile, while also strengthening the conventional capabilities that are an important part of our deterrent. The nuclear strategy we’re announcing today therefore reaffirms America’s  unwavering commitment to the security of our allies and partners, and advances American national security.” - President Barack Obama

Yesterday the Obama Administration released its much anticipated Nuclear Posture Review Report that will shape U.S. nuclear weapons strategy in the next five to ten years.  Described as a roadmap to implement the President’s agenda to reduce nuclear risks, this congressionally-mandated report is the third assessment of its kind – the first two being in 1994 and 2001.    Initial congressional reaction to the 72-page report, issued by the Defense Department in consultation with the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Energy, has generally followed party lines.  Hearings will be held on the Review after Congress returns from its spring recess next week.

There are five key objectives in the Review, including nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism, the reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy, and the maintenance of strategic deterrence and stability.  One objective that is likely to attract less attention is the role the Administration sees for science and technology, the workforce, and infrastructure for “sustaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal.”  Below are excerpts from the report, starting on page 40, regarding this objective.  The entire review may be seen here.

“In order to sustain a safe, secure, and effective U.S. nuclear stockpile as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States must possess a modern physical infrastructure – comprised of the national security laboratories and a complex of supporting facilities – and a highly capable workforce with the specialized skills needed to sustain the nuclear deterrent and support the President’s nuclear security agenda.

“Today’s nuclear complex, however, has fallen into neglect. Although substantial science, technology, and engineering investments were made over the last decade under the auspices of the Stockpile Stewardship Program, the complex still includes many oversized and costly-to maintain facilities built during the 1940s and 1950s. Some facilities needed for working with plutonium and uranium date back to the Manhattan Project. Safety, security, and environmental issues associated with these aging facilities are mounting, as are the costs of addressing them.

“Responsible stockpile management and disarmament require not only infrastructure, but skilled scientists and engineers to manage these efforts. Like our infrastructure, over the last decade our human capital base has been underfunded and underdeveloped. Our national security laboratories have found it increasingly difficult to attract and retain the best and brightest scientists and engineers of today. Morale has declined with the lack of broad, national consensus on the approach to sustaining warheads and nuclear technical capabilities. The cumulative loss of focus, expertise, and excellence on nuclear matters in the United States remains a significant challenge. A strong national commitment to these important nuclear security objectives is essential to countering this trend.

“Increased investments in the nuclear infrastructure and a highly skilled workforce are needed to ensure the long-term safety, security, and effectiveness of our nuclear arsenal and to support the full range of nuclear security work to include non-proliferation, nuclear forensics, nuclear, counter-terrorism, emergency management, intelligence analysis and treaty verification.

“Such investments, over time, can reduce our reliance on large inventories of non-deployed warheads to deal with technical surprise, thereby allowing additional reductions in the U.S. nuclear stockpile and supporting our long-term path to zero. A revitalized infrastructure will also serve to reduce the number of warheads retained as a geopolitical hedge, by helping to dissuade potential competitors from believing they can permanently secure an advantage by deploying new nuclear capabilities.

“Efforts to strengthen the science, technology, and engineering base and address the problems in the physical infrastructure will help with the human capital problem. A renewal of the sense of national purpose and direction in nuclear strategy will also be helpful. The President has clearly outlined the importance of nuclear issues for our national security, and the importance of keeping the U.S. nuclear deterrent safe, secure, and effective at the minimum numbers required.  Further, the Administration’s commitment to a clear and long-term plan for managing the stockpile ensures the scientists and engineers of tomorrow will have the opportunity to engage in challenging research and development activities which is essential to their recruitment and retention.

“A modern nuclear infrastructure and highly skilled workforce is not only consistent with our arms control and nonproliferation objectives; it is essential to them. By certifying the reliability of each weapon type we retain, the United States can credibly assure non-nuclear allies and partners they need not build their own, while seeking greater stockpile reductions than otherwise possible. Further, a corps of highly skilled personnel will continue to expand our ability to understand the technical challenges associated with verifying ever deeper arms control reductions.

“Through science and engineering programs that improve the analysis of the reliability of our warheads, we also enhance our ability to assess and render safe potential terrorist nuclear devices and support other national security initiatives, such as nuclear forensics and attribution. Expert nuclear scientists and engineers help improve our understanding of foreign nuclear weapons activities, which is critical for managing risks on the path to zero. And, in a world with complete nuclear disarmament, a robust intellectual and physical capability would provide the ultimate     insurance against nuclear break-out by an aggressor.

“Additionally, the industrial base activities that support the nuclear enterprise also remain critical to the nation’s deterrence posture. Increased surveillance of critical commercial sector human skills, manufacturing capabilities, and sustainment capabilities is required to ensure this infrastructure remains viable to support the enterprise.

“The NPR concluded that the following key investments were required to sustain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal:

- Strengthening the science, technology, and engineering (ST&E) base needed for conducting weapon system LEPs, maturing advanced technologies to increase weapons surety, qualification of weapon components and certifying weapons without nuclear testing, and providing annual stockpile assessments through weapons surveillance. This includes developing and sustaining high quality scientific staff and supporting computational and experimental capabilities. The NNSA will develop a long-term strategy that will describe the ST&E base required to meet the Stockpile Stewardship Program.  The report will be delivered to the Nuclear Weapons Council in 2011.

- Funding the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory to replace the existing 50-year old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility in 2021.

- Developing a new Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee to come on line for production operations in 2021. Without an ability to produce uranium components, any plan to sustain the stockpile, as well as support for our Navy nuclear propulsion, will come to a halt. This would have a significant impact, not just on the weapons program, but in dealing with nuclear dangers of many kinds.

“More broadly, the Administration supports the needed recapitalization of the nuclear infrastructure through fully funding the NNSA. New production facilities will be sized to support the requirements of the Stockpile Stewardship Program mandated by Congress and to meet the multiple requirements of dismantling warheads and eliminating material no longer needed for defense purposes, conducting technical surveillance, implementing life extension plans, and supporting naval requirements. Some modest capacity will be put in place to surge production in the event of significant geopolitical ‘surprise.’”

For additional information on nuclear strategy, see FYI #27  for excerpts from an address by Vice President Joe Biden at the National Defense University on the future role of the weapons laboratories.  The American Physical Society, an AIP Member Society, recently issued a report on the role of science and technology in reducing the nuclear arsenal; see FYI #31.  The FY 2011 request for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which includes a 9.8 percent increase for Weapons Activity is summarized in FYI #23.