Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2016-2017
In 2009, President Obama promised to pursue a “world without nuclear weapons”—but that was then. By 2014, the administration had announced plans for a decade-long, $355 billion nuclear weapons production program to last 30 years and ultimately cost a cool $1 trillion.1 The eye-popping expenditure has since been generally adopted by the House and Senate in military authorization bills.
One of three new weapons production sites has already opened—the $700 million non-nuclear parts complex run by Honeywell in Kansas City, Missouri. The other two include a uranium fabrication complex at the Y-12 site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and a plutonium processing works at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico. The latter two programs have run up such enormous cost increases that even the White House has blinked.
Plans for LANL’s plutonium “pit” factory—originally expected to cost $660 million—expanded into a $5.8 billion complex. The project was suspended in 2012 and engineers went to work at cost cutting. At Oak Ridge, the cost of the uranium processing “canyon” rocketed from a $6.5 billion to $19 billion. The White House halted the scheme in 2014 and the lab is reworking its plans.
New H-bomb production is advertised as “revitalization,” “modernization,” “refurbishment” and “improvement.” The terms are used by major arms contractors and their congressional representatives who speak of the “40-year-old submarine warhead” (known as the W-76), or who voice concern over factory “fires, explosions and workplace injuries” at existing facilities that are “deplorable” because the equipment “breaks down on a daily basis,” the New York Times reported.
Rebuild proponents neglect to mention that 15,000 plutonium warheads are currently maintained at Pantex, Texas, and are good for 50 years, according to a report in The Guardian.2 The $1 trillion proposal is said to re-establish enough H-bomb building infrastructure to produce up to 80 new warheads every year by 2030.
The military currently deploys almost 5,000 nuclear warheads—on submarines, land-based missiles, and heavy bombers (the Guardian reported exactly 4,804)—even though former Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel signed a 2012 report that concluded that no more than 900 nuclear warheads were “necessary.” The report recommended abolishing 3,500 warheads now in ready reserve, saying warhead numbers are much larger than required.
Independent observers, watchdogs and think tanks have argued for decades that the arsenal can be drastically reduced and made less dangerous: a) by not replacing retired warheads; b) by taking deployed warheads off “alert” status; and c) by separating warheads from missiles and bombs. This separation would lengthen warning-to-launch times, ease international tensions and reduce the likelihood of accidental or unauthorized launches.
Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, which watchdogs the LANL, told The Guardian the reason that new H-bomb production is even being considered is simply “private greed.” Ever since they were privatized in 2006, for-profit corporations now run all the government’s nuclear weapons labs. Mello said, “The nuclear weapons labs are sized for the Cold War, and they need a Cold War to keep that size.”
Additionally, in a report leaked in 2013, the Navy itself questioned the need for producing new warheads. (The Navy controls at least 1,152 warheads spread across its 14 Trident ballistic missile submarines.) And James Doyle, a 17-year veteran scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (who was fired in July 2014 for independently publishing a scholarly article defending nuclear disarmament), told The Guardian, “I’ve never seen the justification articulated for the 50-to-80 pits per year by 2030.”
The $1 trillion estimate does not include a few hundred billion dollars more for new nuclear war-fighting machinery, often called “delivery systems” or “platforms,” such as:
- The $80 billion cost of building 12 new ballistic missile submarines to replace the Navy’s Trident fleet. Sen. Richard Blumenthall, D-CT, told New London’s The Day Sept. 23, “The essence here is this boat will be the strongest, stealthiest, most sustainable of any in the history of the world.”3
- The Air Force’s $81 billion plans for a new nuclear bomber called the Long-Range Strike Bomber Program. The Air Force reportedly wants 80-100 of them at roughly $550 million apiece. The chilling rationale for these bombers was provided by Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, chief of Global Strike Command, who said Sept. 16, 2014, “It will be essential as we move forward to have a bomber force that can penetrate any place on the globe and hold any target on the planet at risk.”4
- A planned replacement of 450 Minuteman III ICBMs known as the “Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent” that a Feb. 4, 2014 study by RAND said would cost between $84 and $219 billion5—set to be deployed in existing silos after 2030.
1 William Broad and David Sanger, “US Ramping Up Major Renewal In Nuclear Arms,” New York Times, Sept. 21, 2014
2 Caty Enders, “Congress pushes nuclear expansion despite accidents at weapons lab,” Guardian, Sept. 29, 2014
3 Scott Ritter, “Blumenthal, Courtney tout program for Trident sub successor,” The Day, Sept. 23, 2014
4 Joseph Raatz, “Air Force leaders discuss nuclear enterprise,” Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs, Sept, 16, 2014
5 Stephen Young, “The End of the New ICBM,” DefenseOne.com, Feb. 18, 2014; & Joseph Raatz, “Modernization of US nuclear forces not optional,” Global Strike Command Public Affairs, Sept. 19, 2014