Be Careful What You Ask For: HASC Republicans Vote to Stop Surveillance of U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

, Washington representative and senior analyst | May 18, 2011, 8:31 pm EDT
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In the early morning hours of May 12, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) approved its version of the Fiscal Year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). During the markup of the Strategic Forces Section, Republicans offered and passed five amendments that sought to limit what actions the Obama administration can take in regard to U.S. nuclear forces. All five were based on a bill called the “New START Treaty Implementation Act,” which was introduced in the House two weeks ago by Representative Michael Turner (R-OH) and apparently could soon be introduced in the Senate by Senator John Kyl (R-AZ), though it has not happened yet for reasons that are unclear.

Unfortunately, if either this bill or the HASC amendments become law they will impede progress on reducing the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

Before going any further, it’s important to point out that this bill and the amendments are not clearly written. As a result, Senator Kyl and Representative Turner’s intent is not completely clear. My colleague Kingston Reif has already written a very good overview of the bill, but we would like to further highlight some of its potential consequences and problems.

For example, under the header “Prohibition on Reduction of Stockpile Hedge,” Section 4(c) of the bill would stop all dismantlement activities until at least 2024, if not much longer, for all nondeployed warheads. The language prohibits funding for dismantlement or retirement of “any nondeployed strategic or non-strategic nuclear weapon” until 90 days after the bill’s stringent conditions are met.

Except for the header, the Kyl-Turner bill makes no distinction among nondeployed forces. If the bill is passed, it could lead to some unfortunate consequences.  In part, this is because U.S. nuclear weapons fall into three basic categories: 1) deployed and 2) nondeployed forces that are a) in reserve, known as the “hedge,” or b) waiting to be dismantled. Because the bill does not distinguish between the latter two, it could stop all dismantlement, leaving some 4,000 warheads – and unknown numbers of jobs at Pantex – in the lurch. Fortunately, the HASC amendment to the NDAA makes an exception for weapons awaiting dismantlement.

However, the HASC amendment to the NDAA still creates a potentially far more serious problem, one that could compromise the United States’ ability to assess the reliability, safety, and security of the nuclear arsenal. Every year, scientists  dismantle and run tests on 11 of every type of nuclear weapon in the stockpile to determine whether they are still reliable, safe, and secure. One of the warheads is destructively tested and thus “retired”; the rest are reassembled and returned to the stockpile. To cite NNSA’s Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, “weapons are retired from the stockpile as a result of changes in strategic requirements or because items are removed from the stockpile to be evaluated for surveillance purposes.” If the Kyl-Turner bill or the House NDAA are ever signed into law, the surveillance process—which entails the dismantlement of warheads—would stop.The NNSA would be unable to certify the reliability, safety, and security of the stockpile until specific, long-term conditions are satisfied. 

What conditions have to be met before dismantlement and surveillance could resume? The bill requires that:

  1. The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) and Uranium Processing Facilities (UPF) be completed and fully operational.
  2. Production of plutonium pits (the core nuclear component of a new warhead) be up to 80 per year.
  3. The weapons complex be able to undertake simultaneous life extension programs.

According to the latest planning documents, if everything goes perfectly, this would not happen until at least 2024.

However, given that the NNSA, which will oversee construction of the CMRR-NF and UPF, is notorious for underestimating both cost and schedule, it’s unlikely the facilities will be fully online until sometime in the 2030s. This means warhead dismantlement and surveillance would stop for some 20 years.

Another section of the amendment prohibits any reductions in nuclear forces by the United States unless the Senate (for a treaty) or Congress (for other mechanisms) explicitly approves the reductions. Intended to prohibit unilateral U.S. reductions, the actual impact would be to explicitly stop executive agreements or other forms of reciprocal U.S.-Russian arrangements that could offer significant security benefits to the United States. Another amendment, also extracted from the Kyl/Turner bill, prohibits any reductions or changes in the deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe without meeting a series of conditions, including waiting 180 days after the President has submitted a report to Congress. In other words, to take perhaps an extreme example, if Russia offered to verifiably dismantle its entire tactical nuclear stockpile in return for the United States withdrawing a single warhead from Europe, this legislation would prohibit such an agreement.

To take a more likely proposition, if Russia’s deployed strategic nuclear forces fell significantly below the 1,550 limit in New START – which in fact is quite likely – the NDAA language would prohibit the President from making modest reductions in U.S. nuclear forces and declaring that the United States would remain at those lower levels if Russia did not increase its deployed stockpile.

The bottom line is, despite more than two-thirds of the Senate voting to implement New START, some Republicans still refuse to break from nuclear weapons “old think.” As a result, they will seek to do anything they can to limit the President’s ability to make changes in U.S. nuclear policy and posture.

A final provision of the Kyl/Turner bill makes clear who—instead of the President—these Republicans would trust on these issues. Specifically, Section 9 of the bill would allow the directors of nuclear facilities and laboratories to circumvent the Department of Energy’s budget process by submitting their own annual reports to Congress on whether their facilities were getting enough money and whether their programs were being adequately supported. Given that the labs are now run by private, for-profit corporations, this would be like allowing Lockheed Martin to tell the Pentagon which planes it needs to build. This provision would make it more difficult for any administration to conduct proper oversight of the nuclear weapons laboratories and production facilities.

Fortunately, this provision was not adopted in the NDAA bill passed by the HASC.

Update: Since publishing this article, we have been informed that NNSA has a new surveillance program that does not necessarily remove 11 of every type of nuclear weapon in the stockpile annually, but in some cases does a more thorough analysis of fewer warheads.  However, since NNSA still conducts destructive testing of some warheads, and some weapons are dismantled before reintroduction into the stockpile, the legislation would still prevent critical surveillance activities.

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