Nickolas Roth

Nick Roth was a policy analyst at UCS, where he wrote extensively about the industrial infrastructure for maintaining the nuclear weapons stockpile. He is currently a research associate at the Project on Managing the Atom in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. He has a B.A. in History from American University and a Masters of Public Policy from the University of Maryland.

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Administration Responds to House Authorization Language

This afternoon the Obama Administration released a Statement of Administration Policy regarding the FY2012 Defense Authorization Bill, and, in particular, the provisions we discussed in our previous blog posts:

Limitations on Nuclear Force Reductions and Nuclear Employment Strategy: The Administration strongly objects to sections 1055 and 1056, which impinge on the President’s authority to implement the New START Treaty and to set U.S. nuclear weapons policy. In particular, section 1055 would set onerous conditions on the Administration’s ability to implement the Treaty, as well as to retire, dismantle, or eliminate non-deployed nuclear weapons. Among these conditions is the completion and operation of the next generation of nuclear facilities, which is not expected until the mid-2020s. The effect of this section would be to preclude dismantlement of weapons in excess of military needs. Additionally, it would significantly increase stewardship and management costs and divert key resources from our critical stockpile sustainment efforts and delay completion of programs necessary to support the long-term safety, security, and reliability of our nuclear deterrent. Further, section 1056 raises constitutional concerns as it appears to encroach on the President’s authority as Commander in Chief to set nuclear employment policy – a right exercised by every president in the nuclear age from both parties. If the final bill presented to the President includes these provisions, the President’s senior advisors would recommend a veto.

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Programs We Are Watching in FY12 Request

The Obama Administration released its fiscal year 2012 budget request today. Here are some nuclear weapons-related programs we are tracking in the proposed National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) budget, most of which have garnered significant increases.

More to come!


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The Buck Stops Here . . . and Here, Too

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was established in 2001 as a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy (DOE) in an attempt to improve oversight and management of the nation’s nuclear weapons labs and production facilities.

However, many of the problems that NNSA was intended to solve persist. And don’t take my word for it, search the GAO website for its reports on NNSA; they provide a bevy of concerns, many tied to project planning. When DOE’s FY12 budget request is released on February 14 or so, it will highlight a new approach to addressing some of these issues.

Deviating from past practice, this year’s request will explicitly spell out the Department of Defense (DOD) contributions to NNSA budgets for nuclear weapons. The request will state, “NNSA’s request reflects the partnership between NNSA and the DOD to modernize the nuclear deterrent. DOD has created a separate account for the amounts for weapons activities that are shown in the table below underscoring the close link between these activities and DOD weapons requirements and missions.” (The table is not included in this post.)

The transfer of money from DOD to DOE is a practice signifying the administration’s desire to demonstrate its commitment to the nuclear weapons establishment, and the willingness of Secretary of Defense Gates to put his money where his mouth is. In April 2010, at the release of the Nuclear Posture Review, he announced plans “for nearly $5 billion to be transferred from the Department of Defense to the Department of Energy over the next several years to improve our nuclear infrastructure and support a credible modernization program.”

This new FY12 budget cycle is the first time that DOE’s budget request will include any details about the transfer. While I don’t have the table referred to in the quote above, I do have some numbers: From FY11 through FY15, DOD will spend $5.68 billion of its own money on NNSA nuclear weapons programs. For FY11 alone, DOD transferred approximately $642 million to NNSA for weapons activities. Probably not coincidentally, these numbers are very similar to the budget increases NNSA received from the Obama administration. (And don’t forget these increases made it into the otherwise flat Continuing Resolution that is currently funding the government.)

Since in the past these have been funded out of the DOE budget, there are many in DOD who are not thrilled about now having to spend DOD money on nuclear weapons programs. Because of this monetary commitment, DOD is playing a more active role in deciding what nuclear weapons activities to fund. From what I’ve heard, since DOD has much stricter standards for cost estimates and project justification than NNSA, this new dynamic has already been successful in slowing down some potential DOE boondoggles. And DOD will have more influence over DOE’s decision-making about what programs are needed to maintain the nuclear stockpile.

Currently, nuclear weapons programs are coordinated through a DOD-DOE organization called the Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC). While DOD and DOE are supposed to make decisions together about what programs are needed, because DOD was not paying for any of these projects, it let DOE make many of the decisions.

The issue of military vs. civil control of the nuclear weapons stockpile is not new, and goes back to the earliest days of the Manhattan Project. It re-emerged in February 2009 when an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) document calling for a study assessing “the costs and benefits of transferring budget and management of NNSA or its components to DOD and elsewhere” was leaked to the press.

After this document became public, there was immediate response from members of Congress and the press. Senator Bingaman (D-NM) released a statement saying that he thought this approach was “shortsighted” and that he would “fight it tooth and nail if they intend to proceed with it.” The New York Times stated in an editorial published on February 21, 2009, “Transferring the [nuclear] complex to Pentagon control could have unfortunate consequences. The already highly secret complex could lose even the limited transparency currently afforded by Congressional committees that oversee the Energy Department. The national laboratories, which do substantial work for civilian clients, might find their mission narrowed and their ability to attract scientific talent diminished.” The proposal was considered politically dead before the report was ever started.

OMB was considering this issue partly as a way of increasing oversight of the nuclear weapons budget. With the release of the FY12 budget request, this could be an option that preserves civilian control, but applies some of the fiscal and practical restraint of the military.

Whether this succeeds in solving known problems without creating new ones remains to be seen.

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$85 Billion: Where is the Money Going?

There has been a lot of talk in Congress and on this blog about the Obama administration’s pledge to spend $85 billion on nuclear weapons over the next 10 years.

To my surprise, very few people know specifically how NNSA plans to use this money. I gave a presentation last week that clarified this issue in the broadest and simplest terms. I am pasting below some of my slides from the presentation with some brief comments for each.

The graph above contains the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) twenty-year plan for spending on nuclear weapons (Page 28 of the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan). It comes to about $185 billion. Some argue that the estimates for years 2020-2030 should not be considered credible because it is so far in the future. While I agree, the chart does give us some idea of NNSA’s plans for the future. Because the graph is in then-year dollars, the increase reflects the rate of inflation as well as any real budget increases. The budget growth from 2022 to 2030 is consistent with a flat budget and a 2% annual rate of inflation.

Table S-1 above and the table below show planned expenditures between 2010 and 2020.

Another question that has frequently come up is what is the breakdown for spending on nuclear weapons activities? I created very simple names to describe the budget categories above. The more accurate descriptions are in parentheses.

The most common talking point used by NNSA is that most of this money is being spent on aging and dangerous facilities that need to be replaced. As you can see in the chart above, only a little less than 30% of the money is being spent to build new facilities. Most of the money is going toward work directly involving warheads or research and development related to warheads.

It is also worth pointing that warhead dismantlement will only make up a very small portion of the “Warhead work”—about $450 million or slightly more than 0.05%.

There have also been questions about what fits under “Other weapons activities.” The programs under this category are not insignificant. However, unlike the other categories, there are many of them and they are very different. They include: Inertial Confinement Fusion Ignition and High Yield Campaign, Advanced Simulation and Computing Campaign, Readiness Campaign, Secure Transportation Asset,Nuclear Counter-terrorism Incident Response, Facilities and Infrastructure Recapitalization Program Site Stewardship, Environmental Projects and Operations, Defense Nuclear Security Cyber Security, Science, Technology and Engineering Capability, and Congressionally Directed Projects.

The investment in Production Capability is not just to maintain the nuclear stockpile and nuclear complex as it is today. This money is actually facilitating a policy shift in terms of the nuclear “hedge.” More than $10 billion of the $85 billion is being spent on new production facilities that increase U.S. warhead production capacity.

This has important implications for how the United States uses its nuclear stockpile. Currently, the U.S. maintains many nuclear weapons in storage, which it could redeploy if there was a geopolitical or technical reason to do so. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review outlining U.S. nuclear policy states that this “hedge” is larger than needed and the United States will “shift away” from relying on it (although it does not explain how or when).

Instead, the United States will rely on the threat of warhead production to “dissuade potential competitors from believing they can permanently secure and advantage by deploying new nuclear capabilities.” This would be the first time since the end of the Cold War that the United States used the threat of qualitative or quantitative improvements in the arsenal to dissuade adversaries.

Below are a few slides that provide some nitty gritty details on the budget, as well as a timeline for major construction projects within the nuclear weapons complex. The first comes from page 48 of the budget request for Fiscal Year 2012. The second can be found on page 24 of the 2010 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan summary.  I don’t have a lot to say about these other than that the actual budget numbers for future years will be larger than this and that NNSA is already behind on this timeline.

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Fiscal Year 2011 Defense Authorization Bill and Nuclear Weapons

With all the focus on whether or not to pass New START in a lame duck session before Christmas, very few people noticed that, in the blink of an eye, Congress passed the 1,000 page National Defense Authorization Bill of Fiscal Year 2011 (also referred to as “NDAA”) with no deliberation or amendments. This bill, which usually requires some two weeks of floor debate, affects policy and sets funding levels for all defense programs, including nuclear weapons. This year, the NDAA contained a number of noteworthy provisions related to nuclear weapons force structure, funding, and maintenance. There were also a few provisions that, thankfully, were left on the cutting room floor. I am going to do a couple of short posts on NDAA throughout the week.

I mentioned section 3114 in a previous post. That was the provision based on Nunn-McCurdy that will create cost and schedule requirements if DOE exceeds 125% of its original baseline cost estimate for nuclear weapons programs.

In that post I also mentioned section 1049 of the NDAA, but I provide more information here. Section 1049 requires the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to develop a methodology and criteria for determining the safety and security features for nuclear weapons.

Over the past several years, NNSA has argued that it needs to make modifications to the nuclear stockpile to increase the safety of U.S. weapons against accidents and their security against theft and unauthorized use.  As has been reported in other blogs, NNSA officials have said that the goal is to make nuclear weapons as “safe as a coffee table.” In other words, NNSA’s goal is to make an accidental or unauthorized explosion impossible. While this may sound good, it is simply not feasible for deployed weapons that are intended to be operational at a moment’s notice. However, by using the “coffee table” standard as its baseline, NNSA would likely end up making expensive and endless modifications to warheads in a futile quest for perfect safety and security.

On the other hand, in the past, NNSA sometimes ignored even modest safety standards if they proved inconvenient.

This new legislation will hopefully force DOE to come up with reasonable standards for safety and security, based on realistic criteria for the likelihood of theft or accident, and to stick to them.

The Report language in the Senate version of the NDAA provides some more detail:

For instance, at one point a standard for the nuclear stockpile was to have fire resistant pits in all nuclear weapons. A decision as to whether or not a warhead type actually was designed to have a fire resistant pit was made based on the requirements for the warhead, including the environment in which the warhead would be stored and deployed. While exceptions to the standard were made in the past, exceptions to the new baseline safety and security criteria should be undertaken only with a clear understanding of the risk entailed by such a decision.

In addition to making sensible threat assessments, the legislation also requires NNSA to do a cost/benefit analysis for warhead modifications. The NDAA report states:

While the committee believes strongly that new threats and vulnerabilities should be addressed, the committee also believes that there should be standards established and a review as to how best to meet the standards and address the vulnerabilities even in a constrained budget environment.

This means that NNSA will have to determine if there is a cheaper way of increasing the safety and security of nuclear warheads other than its preferred choice. As a hypothetical example, it might not make sense for the United States to spend a lot of money to modify the B61 warhead to make it slightly less vulnerable to unauthorized use while it is deployed in Europe if it could achieve the same result by spending less money to increase the security of the weapon’s storage and transportation.

This legislation is particularly important because, over the next 10 years, the United States plans to spend around $4 billion modifying the B61 warhead. In setting clear standards and making these assessments, NNSA will hopefully make better decisions about whether warhead modifications are actually needed, or if there are less expensive or intrusive options.

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