By John LaForge
Previously published in CounterPunch magazine, March/April, 2018
Trivializing nuclear weapons the way he makes light of sexual assault, white supremacy, beating up critics, deporting millions, shooting someone in the street, bombing civilians and torturing suspects, Donald Trump blithely “tweeted” about the US arsenal in December 2016: “The US must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
Mr. Trump’s handlers were trying to steal thunder that day, Dec. 23rd, from the UN General Assembly where most of the world actually was coming to its senses regarding nuclear weapons, voting overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution to begin negotiating a treaty banning them. The remarkable Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons or Ban Treaty was finally adopted by the UNGA on July 7, 2017, and will take effect when it’s ratified by 50 states. Then, on Oct. 6, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was declared the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize winner for its successful effort to see the UN adopt the Ban Treaty. Of course, the US government was having none of it.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations publicly opposed and obstructed efforts to enact the ban, and last October the Congressional Budget Office reported on the colossal price of their all-out pro-nuclear stampede in the opposite direction. The CBO’s report (Approaches for Managing the Costs of US Nuclear Forces, 2017 to 2046) projects that the military-industrial complex’s plan to rebuild the entire US nuclear arsenal from top to bottom, including new warhead production facilities, would cost $1.2 trillion between 2017 and 2046.
This staggering sum involves contested plans to produce: new nuclear-armed long-range bombers, land-based missiles, missile-firing submarines, and their propulsion reactors ($772 billion); new nuclear cruise missiles; the first guided or “smart” gravity H-bomb, and jet fighters to carry them ($25 billion); a rebuilt complex of laboratories and production facilities, in Tennessee, New Mexico and Missouri ($261 billion); and replacement command and control systems that enable the ongoing threat to use the weapons ($184 billion). Allocating the $1.2 trillion by department, the GAO estimates that $890 billion will go to the Pentagon and $352 billion to the Department of Energy (DOE) and its bomb-building wing known as the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
While the CBO’s cost estimate is flabbergasting enough, the agency “lowballed” its estimate by at least $541 billion according to Robert Alvarez, a former DOE senior policy advisor. Writing in the Washington Spectator, Alvarez notes that by excluding the costs of environmental restoration and waste management in the 70-year-old nuclear weapons complex, the CBO “hides” and downplays more than half-a-trillion dollars. The $541 billion “comes from the same congressional spending account” as the $1.2 trillion weapons complex upgrade, Alvarez notes, raising the actual inflation-adjusted total estimate to $1.74 trillion. Clean-up costs were perhaps left out to reduce the hair-raising sticker shock usually prompted by trillions in new federal spending.
Ignoring or belittling the toxic, radioactive legacy of decades of US nuclear weapons production is a longtime practice among weapons proponents. One Livermore National Lab design engineer told me 30 years ago over the phone, “We like to cook; we don’t like to do the dishes.” Three typical examples of this condescension toward contaminated production sites — Oak Ridge Tenn., and Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Kansas City, Missouri — are looked at below.
The $1.7 trillion weapons complex rebuild was originally proposed in 2016 by President Obama, who reportedly agreed to it as a quid pro quo for the Senate’s Ratification of the New Start Treaty with Russia. The weapons industry bonanza appears to be a zero-sum tribute to inflation since it won’t increase the size of the nuclear arsenal. Another couple of trillion will have to be diverted, however, if, as reported by NBC News last Oct. 11, President Trump’s summertime demand for a “tenfold increase” the nuclear arsenal’s size is enacted. It’s only a partial relief that no one takes Trump’s asinine misnomer seriously, and that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left the July meeting calling the game show president “a fucking moron.”
“We don’t have money anymore” but for war
While debating the Republican’s $1.5 trillion tax cut bill, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, spoke about the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) which needed its $15 billion appropriations renewed after expiring last Oct. 1. CHIP subsidizes health exams, doctor visits, prescriptions and other medical care for children in 9 million low-income families. Mr. Hatch actually said on the record: “[T]he reason CHIP is having trouble is because we don’t have money anymore.” Mr. Hatch had just given away CHIP’s budget 100 over in a single tax cut gifting industrialists and the super-rich. With austerity budget cuts like the Republicans’ Oct. 2017 budget proposal to gouge $1 trillion from Medicaid and nearly $500 billion from Medicare, and over half of the federal discretionary funds lavished on the Pentagon, Mr. Hatch must have meant the country doesn’t have money anymore except for weapons and war. The CHIP was eventually funded after a temporary government shutdown, but the White House’s Feb. 12 proposed budget would cut $17 billion from the anti-poverty Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as SNAP, slash the Department of Education budget by 10 percent, and phase out federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The Trump Administration’s official Nuclear Posture Review, issued Feb. 2nd, regurgitates the $1.7 trillion weapons complex rebuild plan without evidence of a need for cost-cutting. A closer consideration of the 30-year-long, trillion-dollar giveaway for military contractors mocks Republican calls for belt-tightening in discretionary spending, and shows Obama-era arms control talk as nothing but permanent bomb building.
The B61-12 guided nuclear gravity bomb (~$13 billion)
The Air Force is pursuing the first ever “smart” gravity H-bomb known as the B61-12. With a variable explosive force of up to 350 kilotons, model 12 of the B61 will reportedly have 60% better accuracy than present-day models known as B61-3, -4, -7, -10, and -11. Critics point out that accurate H-bombs are not needed for deterrence. The “improvement” means the Air Force intends to use the B61s before the US is attacked — in a Pearl Harbor-like sneak attack known as a nuclear first-strike.
The offensive and destabilizing capability of the planned B61-12 may have led retired US Airforce Gen. Eugene Habiger, a former commander of Strategic Command overseeing all US nuclear weapons, to tell the San Antonio Express News last July 22 that, “the [B61] bombs no longer have any military usefulness.”
Still, the Air Force wants to build a few hundred new B61s to replace about 180 currently deployed in the face of broad public and official opposition at six NATO bases — in Germany, Italy, Turkey, Belgium and The Netherlands — and to pad the US stockpile. German public opinion on the B61s, shared across Europe generally, according to a 2016 survey by the Forsa Institute, found that 85% of those polled support permanent withdrawing the US bombs, and 88% oppose US plans to replace Germany’s 20 remaining B61s.
William Arkin, a national security consultant for NBC News Investigates, reports that “Soviet nuclear weapons have been removed from Eastern Europe,” and since “nuclear weapons [were] be removed from [South Korea], certainly they don’t need to be physically present in Europe.” Arkin also points to NATO trend-setters who already rejected “nuclear sharing” and ousted their US B61s: Greece in 2001, and Britain in 2008.
The Los Angeles Times has reported that “since the end of the Cold War, most military leaders believe that our short-range ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons [B61s] based in Europe have virtually no utility.” In April 2010, when he was Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright was asked by the Council on Foreign Relations, “Is there a military mission performed by [B61] that cannot be performed by either US strategic forces or US conventional forces?” The general answered simply, “No.”
But popular opinion and military expertise aside, the NNSA forged ahead in 2015 and estimated the B61 replacement cost at $8.1 billion over 12 years. By January 2018 the projection had increased to between $12 and $13 billion, 35% over-run. Already five years behind schedule, but with plans to produce 480 of the new bombs, the B61-12s could each cost as much twice their weight in gold.
Boeing has won a choice $1.8 billion contract to develop just the new “tail kit” for the B61, making it “smart” and, according to Jay Coghlan, the executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico in Santa Fe, Lockheed Martin Corp. (the general contractor) is making a brand new H-bomb. Hans Kristensen with the Federation of American Scientists agrees, saying that the B61-12 “is a new weapon because a guided nuclear bomb does not exist in the United States.” As a novel weapon, producing the B61-12 will violate both the US-ratified Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and President Obama’s pledge not to develop new nuclear weapons. Even the current deployment of US H-bombs to five NATO countries who are all NPT signatories is an open violation of the treaty’s Articles I and II which explicitly prohibit any such transfer.
But legal technicalities aside, and considering just the big business end of the B61, William Hartung, a Fellow at the Center for International Policy, notes that Lockheed Martin “gets two bites at the apple,” because the company also designs and builds the F-35A fighter-bomber “which will be fitted to carry the B61-12.” Other general contractors getting in on the action by building their jets to carry the new bomb will be McDonnell Douglas (the F-15E), General Dynamics (the F-16), Northrop Grumman (the B-2A, and the B-21), Boeing (the B-52H), and — although the German government hasn’t yet decided to allow it — Panavia Aircraft, builder of Germany’s new Tornado jet.
Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico is the lead designer of the new B61. Both Sandia and the Kansas City bomb plant in Missouri are operated by Honeywell which stands to take a big chunk of the B61-12’s $13 billion to the bank. Los Alamos National Lab was in on early designs, so its private operators — Bechtel, BWXT Government Group, URS Corp., and the U. of California — have also been in on the take.
“Interoperable warhead” ($50 billion)
This boondoggle of laboratory inventiveness is a warhead that in theory would be used interchangeably on submarine missiles, land-based rockets, and even air-launched weapons. Its enormous budget was slashed and then postponed temporarily by Congress, but the program is not dead. Coghlan, with Nuclear Watch New Mexico, notes that the three planned versions of the so-called interoperable warhead, “are arguably huge make-work projects for the nuclear weapons labs … which ironically the Navy doesn’t even want,” citing a declassified Sept. 27, 2012 Navy memo that says “we do not support commencing with the effort at this time.”
The B-21 Raider or “China bomber” ($127 billion)
A new long-range, nuclear-armed “stealth” bomber known as the “B-21” or “Raider” has also been dubbed the “China bomber” because some in the military claim it’s being designed to attack China. In October 2015, the Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman Corp. a “secret” contract to begin its engineering and construction development, now underway at Palmdale, California. Last March, the Air Force identified some of the other major suppliers getting in on the gravy train: Pratt & Whitney (engines), Rockwell Collins, Spirit Aerosystems, Janicki Industries, BAE Systems, GKN Aerospace, and Orbital ATK.
Air Force vice chief of staff Gen. Stephen Wilson, speaking to the House Armed Services Committee last March, said the B-21 had finished “preliminary design review” and that the first bomber may be operational by the mid-2020s. Arthur Villasanta, reporting on Gen. Wilson’s testimony for chinatopix.com, noted that the Air Force wants 100 of the “very long-range” B-21s at an estimated total cost of $80 billion or up to $564 million per plane. The remaining $136-to-$150 million in Gen. Wilson’s estimate may be a matter of padding, but given the weapon industry’s routinized cost over-runs and delays, the general’s $80 billion price-tag and timeline projections are as reliable as TV commercials.
Unlike the other Air Force heavy bombers — the B-1B “Lancer” built by Rockwell Corp., and the B-2 “Spirit” made by Northrup-Grumman Corp. — the B-21 is reportedly being built to carry all the nuclear weapons now used on the B-52s. These include: “12 Advanced Cruise Missiles, 20 Air-Launched Cruise Missiles, and eight bombs,” according to airforce-technology.com. The website didn’t specify that the “bombs” are the B61 nuclear gravity bombs which are also scheduled for upgrade and replacement in the trillion-dollar tax give-away.
Without even attempting to present to Congress some “need” to replace today’s bombers, the Air Force says it wants to operate the new B-21s alongside its B-1s (until 2038), and its B-2s (until 2058), according to Kris Osborn in thenationalinterest.com, belying the idea that new bombers are a needed. The CBO report combined the nuclear weapons “mission” costs of operating all three heavy bombers, and sees $127 billion overall, not the $80B lofted by the Air Force.
The B-21 is reportedly being built to attack extremely far-off targets, beyond even what today’s B-52s can reach — further, that is, than the 16,000-mile round-trip bombing run that one B-52H flew (a world-record for a combat mission), flying from Guam to bomb Iraq in 1996, according to Ron Dick and Dan Patterson in Aviation Century. The B-52“H” is the eighth of Boeing’s endlessly profitable series of B-52s.
However, the need for bomber “modernization” has been refuted by the Air Force itself, which coldly boasts of its current fleet’s killing power. Maj. Kent Mickelson, operations director for the USAF 394th combat training squadron, refuted the pretext in an April 2016 interview, saying that today’s B-2 “is still able to do its job just as well as it did in the ‘80s. … [N]obody should come away with the thought that the B-2 isn’t ready to deal with the threats that are out there today. It is really an awesome bombing platform.” Mickelson should know, Osborn reported, since he helped plan and execute the US bombardment of Libya in 2011.
The Columbia Class ballistic missile submarine ($313 billion)
The Navy submarines that fire long-range nuclear weapons are called Tridents or Ohio Class subs. Shipbuilders and admirals want to retire and replace their 14 Tridents (designed and built by General Dynamics Electric Boat Div.) with 12 new so-called Columbia Class ballistic missile subs. Beyond General Dynamics, the industrial base that takes tax money for building such subs, two football fields long and costing 7 to 8 billion apiece, includes hundreds of supplier firms, labs and research facilities across the country.
The CBO report says that over the 2017-2046 period, the total Navy and Energy Department costs to maintain and modernize today’s Trident subs, their ballistic missiles and their warheads — while building their replacements — are projected to be $313 billion. Of the total, $79 billion would be for operating and sustaining the current systems. The remaining $234 billion would be for the next generation of systems, including operation and sustainment of those systems once they are fielded. The Navy also wants all new missiles for the Columbia Class, for a few tens of billions of dollars more.
The Congressional Research Service has been mildly critical of the Navy’s history of gross cost over-runs. In a December 2017 report, the CRS said, “Some of the Navy’s ship designs in recent years … have proven to be substantially more expensive to build than the Navy originally estimated,” citing a Congressional Budget Office study that found “the Navy in recent years has underestimated the cost of [prototype ships] by a weighted average of 27%.” Just the average cost over-run for the $313 billion Columbia submarine program would cover CHIPs $15 billion annual budget — if only Mr. Hatch had any money anymore.
Not surprisingly, General Dynamic Corp.’s price hikes for the new submarine are already underway. The CBOs $90 billion (2017) cost estimate for the program’s first 10 years, covering the first two new subs and initial plans for a third — lead ships are always pricey — is $8 billion over the Navy’s 2015 estimate.
The Long Range-Stand-Off (LRSO) missile ($30 billion)
The Long Range Stand Off missile is supposed to replace the nuclear-armed Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM). The Air Force already has about 528 operational ALCMs at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, so the “new cruise missile” has been called unnecessary by everyone from peace activists to retired Pentagon chiefs. Cancelling the project would reportedly save $30 billion, or two CHIP allotments for which we “don’t have money anymore.”
The military and its contractors can be counted on to exaggerate the need, value, and capability of the new weapons, and the interchangeable players in the industry and the Pentagon always say the same thing about “national security.” So the LRSO is being touted by the Pentagon, Lockheed, and Congress as crucial for “countering Russian aggression,” pointing to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. These pretexts must be verbalized with a wink, since H-bombs can’t counter Russian or Chinese actions on their own borders without incinerating the contested areas.
The LRSO missile has been condemned by former Sec. of Defense William Perry as the most “uniquely destabilizing” new weapon in the government’s rebuilding extravaganza. Its most well-known unnerving aspect is that it can carry either a nuclear or a non-nuclear warhead. Mr. Perry and former Assistant Sec. of Defense Andy Weber argued in the Washington Post, “We should no longer run the risk that a conventionally armed cruise missile might be mistaken for one with a nuclear warhead, thus starting a nuclear war by mistake.”
Marylia Kelly, coordinator of Tri-valley CARES, a watchdog group that hounds the Livermore National Lab in California, reports that the pro-war Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein has said, “The LRSO … by the Pentagon’s own admission would have a role ‘beyond deterrence.’ Congress shouldn’t fund dangerous new nuclear weapons designed to fight unwinnable nuclear wars.”
In spite of the pointed criticism, the Air Force wants to start fielding the LRSO by 2030, and last August, the Pentagon awarded separate $900-million contracts, one each to Lockheed Martin Corp. and to Raytheon Corp., for a 5-year development competition for the LRSO.
The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center will reportedly select a single winning contractor to build the new missile in 2022. This industrial competition among profiteers is managed so cynically that even the loser banks hundreds of millions. The bard must have been thinking of the masters of war when he sang, “there’s no success like failure.”
While these billion-dollar deals sound like huge jackpots for the big corporations, the Ritz-Carlton context is important, if hard to fathom. Imagine this: the Pentagon paid $46 billion to Lockheed Martin alone in just the past fiscal year. As CEO Marillyn Hewson likes to say, “The hell with conflict resolution.”
It’s not that the cushy, high-paying, high-status jobs must be protected for decades without producing usable products, but, rather, as Gen. Robin Rand, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command [its real name], told the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee last May, “The LRSO [is] an absolutely essential element of the nuclear triad.”
Gen. Rand may have been pushing back against powerful skeptics like former Sec. Perry, who, in two scathing Washington Post op-eds, reported that, “The US does not need to arm its bombers with a new generation of nuclear-armed cruise missiles” [the LRSO], an demanded, “Mr. President, kill the new cruise missile.”
A “Ground Based Strategic Deterrent” long-range missile ($149 billion)
Although the Air Force’s long-range, land-based ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are the most dangerous, accident-prone, and scandal-ridden of the Pentagon’s three nuclear weapons systems (sea-based, bomber-based, and land-based) it is still moving ahead with a proposed replacement. If Congress approves what’s been dubbed the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), the Pentagon would buy 640 missiles (up from today’s 450), and would refurbish existing launch silos, missile support equipment, and command-and-control systems — for a cost of about $149 billion over 30 years.
Last August, Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing Corp. were awarded contracts ($349.2 million and $328.6 million, respectively) to competitively churn out GBSD missile technology and program studies. Again, the Air Force will pick a winning contractor while the missile biz “competition” sees no success like failure.
Currently spread across parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Montana and North Dakota, today’s Minuteman III missiles have been authoritatively ridiculed as “the greatest source” of the danger of an accidental nuclear war. Retired Secretary of Defense and respected nuclear weapons expert William Perry, in op-eds in the New York Times in 2016 and the Washington Post (in 2017, with Gen. James Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), has said, “the United States can safely phase out its land-based ICBM force,” saving money and eliminating “the most dangerous weapons in the world” which “could even trigger an accidental nuclear war.” Reporting on Mr. Perry’s Dec. 3, 2015 speech, Defense News reported “[Perry] said ICBMs are simply too easy to launch on bad information and would be the most likely source of an accidental nuclear war. He referred to the ICBM as ‘destabilizing’ in that it invites an attack from another power.”
Even nuclear weapons advocates like current Pentagon chief Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis have questioned the retention of ICBMs, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee in January 2015 that, “You should ask: ‘Is it time to reduce the triad … removing the land-based missiles?’” More recently, Brent Talbot of the Air Force Academy faculty, writing fondly about other H-bombs in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, slammed plans to replace land-based giants, declaring that “Intercontinental ballistic missiles … should be phased out of the nuclear arsenal.”
Both Sec. Perry and the GAO report that early cancellation of the GBSD and elimination of today’s ICBMs would save $149 billion. This is because the planned “interoperable warhead” would then be far less complex (built only for submarines) and because retiring the land-based missiles between 2018 and 2021 would nix current plans to replace expensive rocket fuses on the Minuteman IIIs.
Heavy corporate pressure will be used in Congress to retain the Cold War dinosaurs, because, as the Federation of American Scientists reports, the Minuteman III has been profitably updated for decades (and because they produce jobs, votes and campaign contributions in the states they occupy). “Modernization programs have resulted in new versions of the [Minuteman] missile, expanded targeting options, significantly improved accuracy and survivability. Today’s Minuteman is the product of almost 35 years of continuous enhancement.” Just between 2001 and 2008, the Air Force lavished $1.8 billion on Boeing, Morton-Thiokol, Aerojet-General, and United Technologies for their installation of new solid rocket fuel in all three stages of all 450 missiles.
Of course, the missile makers see the retirement of the big rockets as a threat to their stockholders and consequently promote dangers and “needs” where none exist. The GAO notes with apparent concern that abandoning the land-based weapons — with their incomprehensible 335-to-475-kiloton warheads — shrinks the government’s ability to wage a “large-scale nuclear exchange.”
Nuclear warhead production: 1) Los Alamos, New Mexico; 2) Oak Ridge, Tennessee; 3) Kansas City, Missouri ($261 billion)
The government’s national nuclear weapons laboratories, Sandia, Los Alamos, and Livermore are now allowed to be run by private companies in a perpetual self-fulfilling conflict of interest. These companies both advocate and feed from the federal nuclear weapons tax trough. Sandia National Laboratories is managed and operated by a wholly owned subsidiary of Honeywell International, and Honeywell runs the new Kansas City Plant. The Los Alamos National Lab, in New Mexico, the Lawrence Livermore Lab in California, and the Y-12 bomb plant in Tennessee are now all managed and operated by Bechtel. These will be the big winners in what the GAO report estimates will be a $261 billion rebuild of these weapons labs.
1) Los Alamos National Lab ($7.5 billion)
Plutonium “pits” and uranium “secondaries” are the guts of hydrogen bombs. The pits have long been turned out at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. Upgrading pit production there could cost between $1.9 and $7.5 billion, according to the NNSA, and lab is pushing hard to get the assignment.
I asked Don Hancock of Southwest Research and Information Center, why the DOE and Trump’s new Nuclear Posture Review latched onto a goal of producing “at least” 80 new plutonium pits every year. Hancock answered in an email, “You’re asking the wrong question. The real question is ‘Why any new pits at all?’”
Hancock has revealed that the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas now stores roughly 2,740 so-called “reserve” nuclear warheads, also referred to as “hedge” or “spare” units that can be put to use at any time. A total of 15,000 plutonium warheads are maintained at Pantex, and are good for 50 years, according to a report in the Guardian. The United States, with almost 1,900 deployed nuclear weapons ready to launch, and at least 10 times more usable “spares” than most nuclear-armed states have in their entire arsenals, has no reason to produce new weapons whatsoever. (See Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists).
Hutchison, of the watchdog group OREPA in Tennessee, spoke to the subject in an Dec. 26 email: “We have argued that Congress should commission a ‘lifetime study’ of the Y-12 ‘secondaries,’ preferably by the think tank JASON that discovered, when it completed a plutonium pit ‘lifetime study,’ that pits were useful for twice as long as NNSA said, a finding that shut down [pit replacement plans] at Los Alamos for the time being.”
Likewise, Dr. James Doyle, a veteran of 17 years as a political analyst at the Los Alamos Lab, told The Guardian, “I’ve never seen the justification articulated for the 50-to-80 pits per year by 2030.”
Even more absurdly, a Nov. 2017 report from the NNSA sets the Los Alamos Lab in New Mexico against the Savannah River Site in South Carolina in competition to be the site of the unneeded new plutonium “pit” production. Savannah River is currently building a factory to make commercial reactor fuel using excess military plutonium. The project is 28% complete, delayed, and so over-budget that the NNSA is strangely toying with the idea of transforming its purpose midstream and building a plutonium pit factory instead. The NNSA claims the switch would cost no more than $5.4 billion. According to the Aiken Standard, a move from fuel fabrication to “pit” production” would be scheduled for 2024-2031. The move would transfer 800 jobs from Los Alamos, where the pits were last produced.
2) Y-12 Bomb Plant, Oak Ridge, Tenn. ($19 billion)
Part of the bomb-building infrastructure upgrade involves the production of highly-enriched uranium “secondaries,” the thermonuclear cores of nuclear weapons, which are fashioned at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. A massive new complex, the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF), is under construction there to produce the uranium cores for a new generation of “at least” 80 bombs a year. However, a major revamping of the plans was forced on the project when the $600 million cost projection soared to more than $19 billion, 31 times the original guess.
The latest UPF mock-up has been cut to an estimated $6.5 billion. Ralph Hutchison reported last April that even this slimmed-down version, which he notes cuts corners on environmental and worker safety, is still set to cost over 10 times the original estimate.
Bechtel Corp., which manages and operates the Y-12 complex, is the majority partner of Consolidated Nuclear Security, the group building the UPF. The $60 billion firm’s reach and profiteering is nearly unmatched in the nuclear weapons racket. Its $32 billion in revenue for 2016 came in part from managing and operating the Los Alamos National (H-bomb) Lab in New Mexico, the Lawrence Livermore H-bomb Lab in Calif., and the Pantex Plant, in Amarillo, Texas — the nation’s final assembly point for nuclear weapons.
If successful, OREPA’s federal lawsuit filed against the prospect of a dangerous new UPF may yet foil the industry’s hopes for a needless new warhead assembly-line. OREPA’s Hutchison argues, “With no legitimate need for the UPF, the project should be cancelled and funding redirected to a facility to dismantle retired nuclear weapons and to cleaning up high-risk facilities like Y12 that pose, in the words of the DOE’s Inspector General, an ‘ever increasing risk to workers and the public.’”
While the owners, management and workers at Y-12 drool and tool-up for the potential financial diamond mine of new weapons programs, environmentalists watching the 70-year-old facility had to bring a federal law suit to challenge the government’s shabby assessment of plans to produce new highly enriched uranium, the thermonuclear cores, for nuclear weapons.
According to Hutchison, the July 2017 lawsuit — brought by OREPA, Nuclear Watch New Mexico and the Natural Resources Defense Council — challenges the NNSA over, among other things, its un-analyzed plan “to use two deteriorating buildings that violate current environmental and earthquake standards” without bringing the old wrecks up to code.
3) Kansas City Plant ($750 million)
A poster child for the flippant minimization of clean-up hazards at nuclear weapons production sites is Kansas City, Missouri, where the DOE has already finished part of the enormous H-bomb infrastructure upgrade, having replaced the giant Honeywell-operated Kansas City Plant that made non-nuclear parts for every warhead in the arsenal from 1949 to 2014. A newly minted $750 million bomb factory, collegiately named “National Security Campus,” took over for the heavily contaminated KCP in 2014.
Local community activists have had to organize to confront the government’s scandalous mistreatment of injured former KCP workers and to challenge the DOE’s flimsy plans for environmental remediation at the abandoned site known as Bannister Federal Complex. PeaceWorks Kansas City reports that, “The mission of the Coalition Against Contamination is to support workers and their families whose health was impaired” by beryllium and other toxins that were heavily used at the factory. Coalition member Ann Suellentrop, KC says the group also warns locals about the US Labor Department’s unlawful denials (exposed by a DOL whistleblower) of worker compensation claims and also about the “potential threat from toxins released during the demolition and cleanup” of Bannister.
Last October, CenterPoint Properties, which coincidently took home hundreds of millions building the new bomb building “campus,” won the contract to clean-up the old Bannister site. CenterPoint says it can be done for $200 million, one-quarter of the $800 million estimate made previously by the DOE. The Coalition Against Contamination has condemned the shabby proposal and is demanding that the site be restored to a residential rather than industrial clean-up standard in order to protect surrounding communities.
Current plans call for reclamation only to industrial standards, and, consequently, are recklessly dangerous, says Suellentrop. “The coalition advocates for use of tenting to cover the 300-acre toxic brownfield during clean-up to prevent dispersal of the dusts,” she says. Tenting would also work to prevent beryllium and other heavy metals from further contaminating groundwater and local streams during demolition. Center-Point’s cost cutting may save millions, but the potential dispersal of beryllium puts next door neighbors at great risk. Beryllium is so toxic that its manipulation always requires industrial-strength dust control equipment and procedures; inhaled or ingested contaminated dusts can cause the chronic, life-threatening disease berylliosis.
How the weapons complex keeps humming
Some nuclear war experts like Sec. Perry have pointed out that H-bombs are superfluous in view of what he called “the reality of today’s US conventional military dominance.” Non-nuclear “conventional” weapons dominance is now a fact established by the non-nuclear US military bombardment, occupation and take-over of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Former Reagan presidential advisor and founder of the anti-Soviet ‘Committee on the Present Danger’ Paul Nitze made the point perfectly in 1999, soon after retiring. “In view of the fact that we can achieve our objectives with conventional weapons, there is no purpose to be gained through the use of our nuclear arsenal.” Nitze’s New York Times op-ed “A Threat Mostly to Ourselves,” included what should have been the epitaph for the nuclear arsenal: “I see no compelling reason why we should not unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons. To maintain them … adds nothing to our security. I can think of no circumstances under which it would be wise for the United States to use nuclear weapons, even in retaliation for their prior use against us.”
With most of the world in agreement with the experts and moving to boldly stigmatize and shun nuclear weapons, how do Congress, the Pentagon and the White House get taxpayers to pony up the trillions?
Part of the answer is decades of dreadful, seemingly plausible, and well-publicized, if fake, threats used to scare the public into nuclear madness. The “missile gap,” the “bomber gap,” the “threat of a Soviet invasion of Europe” and the bizarre “window of vulnerability,” were all useful fictions that kept contracts flowing to the arms industry. Today’s manufactured threats — from Iraq’s “WMD,” to Iran’s “destabilizing” medical isotope and reactor fuel production facilities, to North Korea’s “suicidal” wish to attack the United States, to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and China’s island-building — are just as ludicrous, but generally succeed in winning limited support for the pollution-intensive weapons complex.
Another part of the answer is explained by researcher William Hartung in his writing about the corrupt influence on Congress exerted by the gargantuan arms industry which profits from building the bombs. In Sleepwalking to Armageddon (edited by Helen Caldicott, The New Press, 2017), Hartung notes that the giant weapons contractors contributed $50 million in campaign contributions to Congressional candidates in just the three election cycles since 2009. Simultaneously, and dwarfing that enormous sum, the weapons sector keeps almost two lobbyists on Capitol Hill for every member of Congress and it spent $680 million on lobbying just in the last five years.
Likewise, Greg Mello, of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group in Albuquerque, told the Guardian that the reason new H-bomb production is ever being considered is “private greed” plain and simple. “Ever since they [the national laboratories] were privatized in 2006, for-profit corporations now run all the government’s nuclear weapons labs,” Mello notes. So the military-industrial-weapons complex taints whole Congressional districts with self-serving campaign contributions and a few thousand bomb-building jobs; and it enshrines a vast persistent structural base of managerial, academic, scientific, labor, and political support for useless and unlawful nuclear weapons development. In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned us to guard against this situation to no avail.
Former Defense Secretary Perry’s outspoken criticism of the bank-busting cost of a nuclear complex rebuild managed to move a group of just 10 US senators to write to President Obama urging him to “scale back plans to construct unneeded new nuclear weapons.” It seems the other 90 were busy raising campaign funds from the bomb builders.
Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, “Accountability Audit,” May 2017.
Congressional Budget Office, “Approaches for Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017 to 2046,” Oct. 2017.