Nukewatch Quarterly Spring 2015
By Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group
ALBUQUERQUE—On February 2, the Obama Administration released its proposed fiscal year 2016 budget, including its budget for the Department of Energy and the nation’s nuclear warhead program in the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). In it, NNSA warhead activities are proposed to increase from roughly $8 billion in the current fiscal year, to over $8.8 billion in fiscal year 2016—an increase of $839 million or 10.5 percent.
US nuclear warhead design and production is fully privatized and the above figures do not include the costs for NNSA’s administration of the program, which in fiscal year 2016 is expected to be $284 million. So, a more accurate total warhead program cost is $9.131 billion.
This is well above the comparable Reagan peak of $8.13 billion in 1985 for the same kind of work, the G.W. Bush peak of $8.28 billion in 2004, and Obama’s previous record last year of $8.27 billion.
The budget request explains that in 2014, the Nuclear Weapons Council* decided to “refresh,” that is replace, the conventional high explosive in the W-88 high-yield warhead for the Trident, submarine-launched ballistic missile, when those warheads are taken to Pantex, Texas, to be fitted with upgraded arming and firing systems beginning in 2020. The purpose is to extend the use of the W-88 into “the late 2030s,” allowing further postponement of the proposed first “interoperable” warhead. Last year, the Obama Administration and Congress deferred the “interoperable” warhead program for five years. Multiple sources told the Los Alamos Study Group that the Navy does not support the program and is not budgeting money or missiles for testing the new warhead.
The NNSA’s budget proposal notes these new details for its planned plutonium warhead core (“pit”) production at New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Lab (LANL):
- The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Nuclear Facility—opposed for years by the Los Alamos Study Group and the object of years of litigation—has been formally cancelled.
- A new $675 million project is announced to modify, partially bring up to code, and re-equip the brand-new, $396 million Radiological, Utility, and Office Building to handle larger quantities of plutonium. This brings the project’s total investment to $1.07 billion, making it by far the most expensive single construction project in the history of New Mexico.
- A new $1.365 billion project is announced to modify the interior of the main LANL plutonium facility and install new equipment to handle higher production rates, in addition to multiple other items.
Obama’s military budget request would accelerate development of the air-launched Long-Range Standoff Cruise missile by 1.25 fiscal years. Work on this proposed warhead, a W-80 modification, has been moved up by two years.
Strategic bombers are counted as “one warhead” under New START, even though each B-52H bomber can carry up to 20 nuclear-armed Cruise missiles and/or many nuclear-armed gravity bombs. (The B-2 bomber also carries Cruise missiles and the Long-Range Strike Bomber is being designed for this mission as well.) Long-Range Standoff warheads will not be counted under New START.
Overall this is a status quo budget, one that generally follows prior projections and plans. The proposed big spending increase was expected. There are no sudden departures. Contractor greed and waste are still being rewarded in the three big national labs [Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia]. The contractors are still basically in charge. The dead-man-walking “interoperable warhead” program is still on the books despite its lack of support in the military. No old warhead types are being retired. No ICBM bases are being closed.
Looking deeper, morale and management problems will continue and are certain to explode in unpredictable ways. The fiasco created by LANL at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico is a harbinger of further trouble down the line, because nothing fundamental has been fixed. (See p. 6)
There is no way to have a well-managed nuclear weapons program. It’s a fiasco-generating contradiction that NNSA has to live with every day.
Sooner or later nuclear weapons will be gone. The question they pose is whether we will exit at the same time—either because we finally open the “nuclear umbrella,” or because our investments in the mushroom cloud preclude the solidarity needed to save a living planet from the other threats we’ve created.
In this budget we see NNSA’s nuclear weapons “life extension program.” What about a life extension program for humanity, for our civilization?
—Greg Mello is a Director of the Los Alamos Study Group.
*The five-member Nuclear Weapons Council, operated jointly by the departments of Defense and Energy, includes the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics; the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Energy Department Under Secretary for Nuclear Security; the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and the head of US Strategic Command.