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Thursday, July 17, 2008  
U.S. Plans to Shrink Nuclear Weapons Complex

By: William Mathews
Published In: Defense News

The U.S. Energy Department wants to modernize, downsize and economize the complex of laboratories and production plants that make up the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

With the nuclear stockpile shrunk to a fraction of its Cold War size, the National Nuclear Security Administration says it wants to close about 600 of the thousands of buildings in its weapons complex.

By closing old, unneeded buildings and consolidating activities, the NNSA promises substantial savings on building maintenance and through reduced security requirements.

The nuclear weapons agency also wants to build modern laboratories and create two "centers of excellence" for developing and assessing nuclear weapons.

Critics of the NNSA's plan say it will cost $150 billion or more over the next two decades, more than enough to eat up any savings.

But NNSA chief Thomas D'Agostino told a House subcommittee July 17 that much of his modernization plan can be paid for with money saved by closing buildings. In all, modernization costs could increase NNSA capital spending by $200 million a year, he said.

The Government Accountability Office said, "Historically, NNSA has had difficulty developing realistic, defensible cost estimates, especially for large, complex projects." In some cases, construction costs more than doubled, said Gene Aloise, GAO's director of natural resources and environment.

Built to support the stockpile of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, the complex is too big for today's smaller stockpile, D'Agostino said. It's "too inefficient, too old and too costly to sustain," he told the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.

But nuclear weapons opponent Marylia Kelley said D'Agostino's plan isn't just about downsizing. It would also boost the NNSA's capacity to produce plutonium bomb cores from 20 to 80 a year, she said.

Kelley is director of Tri-Valley CAREs, a California organization that opposes nuclear weapons.

Today the U.S. nuclear weapons complex is spread out over eight separate sites located from Georgia to California. Even after building closures during the 1990s, the nuclear complex includes 35 million square feet.

D'Agostino said he wants to reduce that to 26 million square feet.

Closing buildings will cut operating costs, and consolidating nuclear materials in fewer locations would reduce a major expense - security, he said.

Consolidation is possible because the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile was cut in half by President George W. Bush between 2002 and 2007. The NNSA won't say how many remain, but nuclear weapons experts estimate that the United States still has about 5,000 warheads.

D'Agostino said he also wants to restructure research and development facilities to eliminate redundancy, and create two "centers of excellence" for "nuclear weapons development and assessment."

Kelley warned that the NNSA is attempting to revive the Reliable Replacement Warhead program even though Congress has killed it.

The RRW program was a Bush administration plan to design a new generation of nuclear warheads that would be simpler, safer and longer lasting - thus more reliable.

Today's nuclear weapons are made up of about 3,800 parts. About 50 of those are in the "nuclear package" at the heart of the bomb. The rest are fuses, arming and firing components and many are safety devices, said Amb. Paul Robinson, former laboratories director at Sandia National Laboratories.

The parts must be periodically tested and replaced when they deteriorate. The RRW was intended to be more reliable and require less testing and maintenance, Robinson told the subcommittee.

The effort to develop a more reliable warhead was conceived because the United States has agreed since 1992 not to test nuclear weapons by exploding them, he said.

Critics contend the program is an effort to develop new nuclear weapons despite a prohibition against them by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Kelley charged that the NNSA is attempting "an end run" around Congress, which eliminated funding for the RRW in this year's budget.

She urged the subcommittee to adopt a "curatorship approach" to nuclear weapons that includes "careful surveillance, analysis and refurbishment" of existing weapons rather conducting research on new ones.

That, alone, would yield substantial savings, she said. "NNSA currently spends about 50 percent of its weapons activities budget on nuclear weapons research and development." Under curatorship, research would directed at better understanding how current weapons age. Costs could be cut to less than 20 percent of the current budget, she said.

Robinson said D'Agostino's plan is better than an earlier NNSA transformation scheme called Complex 2030, but "it still does not present a compelling solution to the many problems facing the nuclear weapons complex."

One problem is that the NNSA has "received too little guidance from the Defense Department" about the eventual size of the stockpile and the types of nuclear weapons the military will want.

Robinson agreed that costs are likely to be high. "The enormous growth in costs for construction and subsequently for operations is destined to break the bank of the weapons budgets," he said.

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