Chu-ing Over Plans for the Nuclear Complex

, Washington representative and senior analyst | November 8, 2010, 11:24 am EST
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In late October, Secretary of Energy Chu announced a new independent review of two planned major nuclear weapons facilities. The timing of the review is extremely interesting, as the Obama administration overall is focused on getting the Senate’s consent to ratification of New START. One of the key points raised by some Senators has been around the sincerity and/or adequacy of the administration’s commitment to invest in the nuclear infrastructure, including these facilities.

The thought emerges: is this review, finally, a stick from the administration, after it has been handing out carrots to the Senate for months? Given the concerns about the size, cost and mission of these facilities (see below) it would not be surprising if this independent review concludes they aren’t needed, or at least not as currently designed. The administration might use that conclusion—if the Senate does not support New START—to justify changing its mind and canceling these facilities. So creating this panel now may be intended to apply not-so-subtle leverage to treaty opponents.

Here’s a fuller picture, in gory detail. Early on in its Nuclear Posture Review – before New START negotiations had even begun – the administration decided it wanted to increase funding for some new weapons-complex facilities. It sought to change the pattern of the previous administration: the Bush administration talked a big game but did little to push Congress—and what it did push Congress largely rejected. That includes the Modern Pit Facility (MPF), designed to produce up to 450(!) new plutonium pits per year, which never drew high-level administration support; the bunker-busting Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator; and the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) where efforts were stronger, but ultimately ineffective.

Endeavoring to change the pattern, the Obama administration chose to make major investments in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) new “asks” for the Complex. Specifically and most expensively, those include the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) and the Uranium Production Facility (UPF). I’ve been told the administration made those decisions despite some internal budget objections, without an enormous amount of thought despite DOE’s track record for completing major projects on time and close to budget, and ignoring the fact that no realistic final budget estimates were available. To balance the President’s clear commitment to nuclear dismantlement, the administration wanted to signal its support for keeping the nuclear arsenal strong, and this was how it decided to do it.

So, is the new independent review intended to see if the administration actually signed up for two over-priced and unneeded lemons? That seems to be a possibility.

I’ve talked to numerous people who have visited the sites at Los Alamos and Y-12 that CMRR-NF and UPF would replace, and there is little doubt that the old facilities are in pretty bad – if not dangerous – shape (although apparently they want to keep parts of the old building at Los Alamos open). But are the proposed facilities appropriately designed and sized to do the job that is needed, if indeed it is needed? If it is needed, could existing facilities be upgraded to do the work instead? These are the questions this new independent panel is designed to answer. The panel will first meet on November 22 and issue its report six weeks later in early January, possibly just in time to affect the FY12 budget request.

Here’s one example: a major driver for the size of the UPF is making fuel for the next-generation Trident submarine, which might come on-line around 2030. If you need to build as many submarines then as you have now, and make them as big, then maybe you do need a large UPF. But if you don’t and they aren’t, then maybe not. I’d note that under New START the U.S. is likely to be removing missiles from submarines, driving them around the ocean with empty tubes (or maybe they’ll stick some Navy Seals in them). If you built smaller and/or fewer submarines, could you make a smaller UPF and save a lot of money?

Another question: the CMRR will allow Los Alamos to increase the number of plutonium pits it can produce from 20-30 per year to 50-80. Plutonium pits, the core of the primary that drives the explosion in modern nuclear weapons, are challenging to make, but the United States has thousands of them in storage and the size of the arsenal is decreasing. Does the complex really need to increase its capacity to make more, and at what cost?

These money questions are critical to passage of New START in the Senate. In August, Senator Kyl sent a letter to Vice President Biden, making some very specific asks for what he considered required funding for the weapons complex, including amounts like $60 million to recover from flooding at Pantex and $64 million for contractor pensions. Considering that Senator Kyl’s has expressed concerns over whether the administration’s $180 billion 10-year plan is enough, this level of detail is extraordinary.

In September, VP Biden sent a letter to Senator Kerry, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, indicating that the record increases the administration proposed for the weapons complex would not be enough to cover the actual costs, and that even higher funding would be required in future budget years.

At the end of September, Congress—having failed to pass any funds for the FY11 budget year—passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) to provide money for the government until it can. As a rule, CRs simply continue the level of funding from the previous year (hence the name); if exceptions are made for one thing, then everyone wants some of the pie and the whole process falls apart. But this time, in an unusual step, the administration stepped in to ensure that the CR includes the additional FY11 funding requested for the NNSA—an exception clearly meant to signal the administration’s seriousness about its commitment (and its desire for New START).

In the near future, the administration will be providing Senators both an update to the Congressionally-mandated “1251 report,” the above-mentioned 10-year plan for the stockpile and the Complex, and a preview of the FY12 budget request. Both are likely to contain additional funding increases to yet again demonstrate the seriousness of the administration’s commitment to maintain nuclear weapons.

This raises a question: will the increases ever stop? At issue here is the DOE’s aforementioned abysmal track record on completing major facilities on time and close to original budget. Unlike the DOD, which also has a poor track record keeping costs down but at least can give you a total project cost early on, the DOE historically starts projects with only preliminary cost estimates and requests only enough funds for a single year of construction at a time. By these two tricks, DOE avoids congressional votes on the full cost of its projects. In this case, the administration is making a sincere push to address this problem, but there is a lot of history to overcome.

Let’s be very clear here: the President has made an unprecedented and personal initiative—stated most clearly in the April 2009 Prague speech—to change the way the Untied States and the world think about nuclear weapons. Personally and organizationally, we support that goal and will do all we can to see that it comes to pass.

But a bottomless pot of money for the weapons complex, significantly increasing its ability to produce new plutonium pits, does not mix well with that agenda. Not only will groups like UCS have a problem with this, but it seems entirely possible that a good number of newly elected Republicans could as well.

This is why the new Chu panel could be important. Press reports about its membership list an experienced but diverse group:

  • Former DOE officials like Earl Whiteman, who initiated the successful efforts to move pit production from Rocky Flats to Los Alamos, and Steve Guidice, who was director of weapons production among other roles. Guidice participated in a recent panel that supported the current UPF design.
  • Former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker, also known as Mr. Plutonium for his expertise on the material. Hecker disputes the findings of NNSA and JASON on the expected lifetimes of plutonium pits, claiming they overstate the lifetime.
  • Former Under Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who oversaw the national laboratory system and national security programs, including stockpile stewardship and non-proliferation, from 1997-2001, but who is by no means a DOE “lifer.”
  • Dick Garwin—JASON member and the person who built the first thermonuclear bomb (and UCS board member)—who has testified about ways to reduce costs in the complex and stated previously that the CMRR and UPF might not be needed.
  • UC Berkeley professor Raymond Jeanloz, who chairs the National Academy of Science’s CISAC panel, and is also a JASON member.
  • University of Texas-Austin professor and JASON chair Roy Schwitters, who happened to direct the ill-fated Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) project and thus knows a thing or two about Congress killing major projects.

Could the panel recommend cutting or eliminating the facilities? We will see. Could the administration have begun to play a little bit of hard ball? It seems possible.

In that context, it is also worth noting something that former senator Jake Garn, a Republican from Utah, and Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and Bush the elder, wrote in a recent op-ed that puts the hardball question into very clear focus:

the treaty provides a vehicle whereby some Democrats not usually known for their support of strategic systems can bring themselves to commit to modernization, while, at the same time, some Republicans not usually known for their support for arms control can bring themselves to vote for ratification. Conversely, rejecting the treaty may well break this consensus and result in no modernization of our forces.

For those who claim modernization is their highest priority, that seems to sum up the issue pretty clearly.

Update: Jeffrey Lewis at Armscontrolwonk.com highlights another problem for New START: the drive for multi-year appropriations that could also break the consensus around funding for the complex.

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