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Frank Capra 2010: Nuclear Weapons Lab Directors Go To Washington

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Yesterday, the directors of the three nuclear weapons laboratories—Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Sandia National Laboratory (SNL), and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)—testified with Dr. Roy F.Schwitters, head of the independent scientific group JASON, about the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) before both the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC). This testimony is expected to be influential in the upcoming Senate vote on whether to consent to ratification of the treaty. The lab directors exceeded my expectations and did a very good job of making a strong case for the treaty.

The hearings focused primarily on whether the labs, under New START, would have adequate resources to maintain the nuclear arsenal without testing. While the treaty says nothing about testing, many senators have leveraged the debate over New START to get more funding for nuclear weapons.

There is online video of the hearing and opening statements, so I won’t comment on every interesting discussion. However, here are a few issues that came up that are worth highlighting.

Directors concern about “uncertainty”

One of the most interesting points made by the lab directors was about the concept of “uncertainty.” This is not a new theme. The directors of the nuclear weapons labs have been using “uncertainty” as the justification for their arguments for a long time. The fear of technical and geopolitical uncertainty is prominent in the NPR and serves as some of the basis for large budget increases and planned increases in production capacity in the nuclear weapons complex.

During yesterday’s hearing, the lab directors voiced their concern about the uncertainty of maintaining future budgets for nuclear weapons. However, “uncertainty” also played an important role in strengthening the case for ratifying New START. All three lab directors said that the best thing for the nuclear weapons labs was for Congress to have a consensus policy for a path forward. The lab directors said that, if New START were not ratified, it would cause “uncertainty” and demonstrate that there was no clear policy for nuclear weapons.

Mike Anastasio articulated it best in his written statement, “I do not see New START fundamentally changing the role of the Laboratory. What New START does, however, is emphasize the importance of the Laboratories’ mission and the need for a healthy and vibrant ST&E [Science, Technology & Engineering] base to be able to continue to assure the stockpile into the future.”

Do the nuclear weapons labs have enough technical flexibility to maintain, as they call it, their intellectual infrastructure?

There have been accusations among some Senators that President Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) does not provide enough leeway for the nuclear weapons labs to exercise their brains.  To review, the NPR allows the Nuclear Weapons labs to look at a full range of options for “modernizing” the nuclear weapons stockpile. However, if the labs decide that they want to build new nuclear components for warheads, Congress and the President must sign off on it. It is important to note that independent scientific analysis has said that, to maintain the reliability of the nuclear stockpile, it is not necessary to build new nuclear components.  Some Senators have objected to requiring this additional approval before building new nuclear components. At yesterday’s SASC hearing, one Senator went said that, nowadays, physicists only do maintenance of warheads, which is not as exciting as “before.”

The good news is that the lab directors said that they were OK with the NPR’s approach to maintaining the stockpile. LANL Director Mike Anastasio said this approach did not “overly constrain” the labs. Both Anastasio and LLNL Director George Miller said that, because the labs were able to look at the “full range of options” for maintaining the warheads, the NPR would not stifle their creativity. Miller further emphasized that he believed that it remained his “responsibility” to examine all options and pursue those that would be most effective. Roy F. Schwitters, head of the independent scientific group JASON who provide independent analysis of the nuclear stockpile, added that there is still interesting work to keep the nuclear labs busy for a long time with challenging work.

Do the nuclear weapons labs have enough money?

This issue continually comes up. Fortunately, all three lab directors supported this year’s nuclear weapons budget, stating that it demonstrated a significant commitment to the nuclear weapons labs. Coincidentally, as these hearings were taking place, the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee was marking up their bill. The committee recommended that nuclear weapons programs receive $6.91 billion, essentially everything that the administration requested.   Responding, one Senator said that he would not vote for New START until there was a long term, 20-40 year plan for maintaining the nuclear stockpile. Fortunately, such a plan exists! This week, UCS and the Federation of American Scientists released an analysis of a National Nuclear Security Administration report outlining nuclear weapons over the next twenty years.  In total, the U.S. plans to spend at least $177 billion (then-year dollars) on maintaining the nuclear stockpile over the next two decades (this does not include new submarines or delivery vehicles).

Do the lab directors think we are better off with New START?

Since, as the lab directors frequently reiterated, New START does not directly affect their work, the exchanges on the treaty itself were generally on subjects outside their purview. For example, one Senator on the Armed Services committee raised the issue of verification, insisting that that New START would provide weaker verification than what we currently have.  However, as Dr. Schwitters wisely reminded the Senator, there is currently no verification, since START I has expired, and New START will thus represent a major improvement over the dangerous status quo. Furthermore, the reports about weak verification New START have been greatly exaggerated—this UCS fact sheet released this week breaks down how the verification regime will work just as well as START I.

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About the author: 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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