Briefing Book

Nukes Forever

Barack Obama is spending billions to maintain and upgrade America's nuclear weapons. But his opponents say it's not enough. Will they ever be satisfied?

Sixty-five years ago, scientists working in a secret city in northern New Mexico journeyed south to yet another secret location to test their "gadget." J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, reacted to the atomic explosion that shattered the predawn desert silence by simply saying, "It worked."

The "secret city" was Los Alamos, home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the lab that produced the Little Boy and  Fat Man atomic bombs that were exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. The lab became the star of the U.S. Cold War nuclear weapons complex; its scientists designed the hydrogen bomb and multiple other warheads. To establish a healthy atmosphere of competition, a second nuclear weapons laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, was established near San Francisco. The exclamation "it worked" has probably been uttered by nuclear designers many hundreds of times since.

Under heavy public and congressional pressure, the United States ended its program of nuclear testing in September 1992, and President Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty four years later, barring all nuclear explosions, military or otherwise. The Senate failed to ratify the treaty, but the United States has still honored what Clinton called the "longest-sought and hardest-fought-for arms-control treaty in history."

The U.S. moratorium on nuclear testing was a major turning point for the nuclear weapons complex. It meant that, without the ability to conduct nuclear tests, the labs would still have to be able to answer the questions: Will it work? How well will it work? What sorts of programs do we have to ensure that it will work? These questions form the nexus of the nuclear warhead "modernization" debate, which is now becoming a point of contention in the political battle over the ratification of President Barack Obama's new strategic arms treaty with Russia, known as New START. As we'll see, the treaty's opponents have created the false impression that Obama isn't doing enough to maintain America's fearsome nuclear arsenal, when in fact he's throwing billions into the effort -- even, arguably, expanding it despite his pledge to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons.

Since the moratorium on testing began, the Energy Department has managed the United States' 9,613 remaining nuclear weapons through its subagency, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), under the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (formerly the Stockpile Stewardship Program). This plan relies on a range of scientific techniques to certify and maintain the nuclear arsenal. A direct result of these experimental and computational developments has been the NNSA's Life Extension Programs. Using a variety of physical, chemical, and mathematical methods, the NNSA's scientists identify potential problems associated with aging in each type of warhead and remedy them by replacing parts and refurbishing the weapons as necessary. All this is accomplished without underground testing or building entirely new warheads; the latter was actually proposed at one point by George W. Bush's administration, but Congress refused to fund it. Maintaining the stockpile requires regularly taking apart some of the weapons to look for signs of aging, especially in the plutonium and uranium components -- hence why the NNSA's complex of capabilities also includes the production of plutonium "pits" (the essential "trigger" for a thermonuclear bomb) and uranium processing facilities.

When the Obama administration submitted New START to the Senate, it was also required by law to submit a classified "Section 1251 report" describing how the nuclear complex will be maintained and modernized over the next decade. Independent studies have proved time and time again that the Life Extension Programs and the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan are working, and that the arsenal will be stable and reliable for decades to come. Many lawmakers, as well as the Obama administration, have thus made the argument that strengthening the Life Extension Programs and providing $80 billion over 10 years for the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan and all associated facilities within the nuclear weapons complex is the most sensible way to answer the "modernization" question. The unclassified version of the Section 1251 report, as well as the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, reflect this.

But there are a vocal few who consistently argue that whatever funding is provided for the nuclear security complex simply won't be enough. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is the loudest of these opposing voices. After he and several other Republican senators paid a visit to Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories at the end of July, he held a news conference on Capitol Hill in which he demanded $10 billion more on top of all the funding that has already been proposed by the Obama administration. He was vague about the money, saying it was necessary, "so that we know that this program is not going to go for a while and peter out," but he didn't clarify exactly what he thinks the additional funding will do. His arguments seem to boil down to two things: a different definition of "modernization" and simply wanting new warheads and possibly even new testing.

Kyl and like-minded policy analysts consistently define modernization as the production of new weapons and new strategic delivery systems. Kyl uses this definition to present the argument that U.S. nuclear systems are dangerously behind the times, and therefore the only way to catch up with the rest of the world is to build new nuclear weapons. His argument has been debunked in a number of ways, most notably that the United States is doing everything short of making new weapons and has also budgeted for extensive modernization of its strategic delivery systems (ballistic missiles, submarines, and bombers). The Obama administration has even hedged on the no-new-nuclear-weapons pledge that it presented in this year's Nuclear Posture Review and has stated that though new warheads are not needed, it is leaving options open for a "full range of [Life Extension Program] approaches," including warhead replacement. In essence, this provides a considerable range of options for the president -- with congressional approval, of course. It's also worth pointing out that the top budget priorities for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, as defined by the most recent Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, are new plutonium pit facilities at Los Alamos and new uranium processing facilities at Y-12 in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Clearly, the Obama administration has seen to it that the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal will be funded, maintained, and even expanded over the next 10 years.

So, why isn't this enough for the opposition? Presumably, the only thing that will mollify Kyl and others would be new warheads. During the Bush administration, they almost got them, when Congress initiated a program to explore the design of a completely new nuclear warhead, the first new hydrogen bomb designed in almost 20 years. The warhead became known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) because it was supposed to replace older warheads and would be made from components that had already been tested, thus (theoretically) reducing the need for new testing. But the Bush administration discovered that the political, technical, and strategic issues of making a new nuclear warhead and planning for its deployment as an integral part of the U.S. nuclear deterrent were more complex than it had predicted. For example, a study by an independent defense science advisory panel known as the JASON group concluded that there was no guarantee that the new warhead wouldn't have to be tested. And though it would be put together from existing components, the United States would actually be building new bombs -- making Washington less credible in its efforts to pressure new and would-be proliferators to give up their nuclear programs. Congress ultimately refused to fund the RRW in 2008.

There is always the possibility that the RRW will be resurrected; the Nuclear Posture Review doesn't even explicitly exclude the possibility of an RRW-like warhead. It's not hard to imagine that some time in the future, another presidential administration and a different Congress will put the new manufacturing facilities at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge to use as part of a plan for new nuclear warheads. Everything will be in place, ready for Kyl's flavor of modernization. And because the Pentagon has emphasized that it is already upgrading and rebuilding key strategic nuclear delivery systems (including completely rebuilding the Minuteman III missile and upgrading its warheads to more powerful ones, and upgrading strategic bombers), it's fairly clear that the U.S. nuclear deterrent will be a force to be reckoned with for decades to come -- all despite Obama's idealistic vision of a nuclear-free world.

So, regardless of how the opposing sides define modernization, both factions should be pleased with what they're getting as the final package. That's why the treaty has garnered the support of everyone from the directors of the national laboratories and the NNSA to many key military figures and nuclear strategy experts. Opposition to the treaty simply doesn't make sense at this point; after all the hearings and all of the technical analyses, opposing it just looks like cynical, transparent partisan maneuvering. There is no reason to object to the treaty on the basis of the question, "Will the arsenal work?" There's enough money in the pipeline for it to "work" for many, many years to come.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

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