NNSA Tries to Disprove Shakespeare

August 24, 2010 | 3:45 pm
Nickolas Roth

You know William Shakespeare’s “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet?” This week the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) tried to prove him wrong by changing the name of “Nevada Test Site” (NTS) to the “Nevada National Security Site.”

I have a couple initial reactions. The first, and probably most obvious, is that this is intended to shift the public’s focus away from any questions about why the United States needs to maintain the NTS even though it has not conducted a nuclear test in twenty years and probably won’t ever again. Also, this is probably an attempt by NNSA to get away from the images of nuclear testing (see above). Some of these images include contaminated land, strontium-90 in babies’ teeth, and thousands of illnesses that resulted from the more than 900 nuclear tests the U.S. conducted at NTS. It’s not a surprise that NNSA would want to change the name. All of these things make nuclear weapons seem unpleasant.

Several colleagues have remarked that this may be the single most boring name change for a historical site in the history of the United States. While this may be true, the new name is not surprising. In fact, several days ago I pretty much guessed what the new name would be.

The name change is consistent with NNSA’s ongoing effort to publicly distance itself from the “image” of nuclear weapons. With the Cold War over and nuclear weapons increasingly being regarded as a liability, NNSA has made a concerted effort to rebrand the industrial infrastructure that maintains and modernizes nuclear weapons. For most of the past 60 years, this group of interrelated buildings that make up this infrastructure has been known as the “Nuclear Weapons Complex.” However, more recently, there has been a strong push to change the name of the nuclear weapons complex to the “21st Century National (or Nuclear) Security Enterprise.”

In one sense, this rebranding reflects the outdated nature of nuclear weapons and the need for the nuclear weapons labs to focus on nonproliferation and the eventual, verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, this effort has not been accompanied by a significant change in the programmatic scope of the nuclear weapons infrastructure. In fact, the process of building a “21st Century National Security Enterprise” further entrenches the nuclear weapons industry by constructing new nuclear weapons production facilities not seen since the end of the Cold War.

This dynamic is also playing out with the renaming of the Nevada Test Site. In NNSA’s press release, it states that the name change recognizes “the expanding, critical and diverse role it plays in our nation’s security.” Despite the statement, it is doubtful that NTS will experience any significant programmatic shift in the near future. While it is true that the NTS requested a large budget increase for its nonproliferation work in Fiscal Year 2011, funding for nuclear weapons activities experienced only a minor reduction, going from $243 million in Fiscal Year 2010 to $227 million. Further confirming this point, the “FY 2011 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan” states that NTS will “will sustain a capability to conduct an underground nuclear test” and continue sub-critical experiments, nuclear explosive operations, dynamic plutonium experiments, dynamic materials properties experiments, and criticality experiments.

In its press release, NNSA accurately points out that Congress requested a report to study potential areas where the Nevada Test Site’s mission can be expanded. In an amendment (SA 2562) offered last year to the Fiscal Year 2010 Defense Authorization Bill, Senator Reid required NNSA to submit a plan for:

(A) fully utilizing the inherent capabilities and uniquely secure location of the Site;

(B) continuing to support the Nation’s nuclear weapons program and other national security programs; and

(C) renaming the Site to reflect the expanded mission of the Site.

On the surface one might think that there is nothing wrong with studying these options, but there are two significant problems with this piece of legislation. The first is that it automatically assumes there needs to be a nuclear weapons mission at the Nevada Test Site. With all of the redundancy in the nuclear weapons complex and as part of the ongoing effort by NNSA to consolidate, this study should have looked at whether it was necessary to maintain this mission.

The second problem is that this legislation creates a conflict of interest by having NNSA study the options for “fully utilizing the inherent capabilities and uniquely secure location of the Site.” Right now, the Nevada Test Site is administered by NNSA, but several other government departments, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy, and the Department of the Interior, use the land. However, with NNSA leading the study, it is likely that ideas for significantly expanding non-nuclear programs at NTS will not get adequate attention. It should be no surprise to anyone if the study recommends continuing NTS’s nuclear weapons mission without significantly expanding the role of other government agencies.

While this name change accurately reflects that nuclear tests are no longer conducted by the United States, it needs to be followed by true programmatic change at the NTS. Senator Reid’s legislation should have asked for an independent, comprehensive study of all of the future options for the Nevada Test Site.

Despite efforts by NNSA, it seems that Shakespeare’s axiom will hold true. Changing the name of the Nevada Test Site won’t change its historical legacy or the fact that its purpose is to be ready to conduct nuclear tests.