Monday, April 17, 2006
Mon Apr 17, 2006 at 07:32:30 AM PDT
As many of you probably know, 61 years ago, the first nuclear weapon was tested at the Trinity Site in southern New Mexico, at what was to become part of White Sands Missile Range. New Mexico is my home state, and my husband and I are currently visiting my parents in Albuquerque.
Right now, I'm sitting in front of our hotel room window. If I look to the southeast, I can see the Manzano mountains, shrouded in a smokey haze from a forest fire up north. They look barren and dry, but they used to harbor a dark, malignant force that could literally destroy the world thousands of times over.
Until 1992, Manzano Base, which is east of Kirtland Air Force Base, was one of the main storage facilities for the US nuclear stockpile. The weapons that weren't dismantled were moved to an underground storage facility on Kirtland AFB; as home to nearly 3,000 nuclear warheads, New Mexico has the dubious distinction of hosting the largest US nuclear weapon storage facility in the world.
Many of these weapons are quite old; the "youngest" one was built in 1989, toward the end of the Cold War. Last year, based upon weapons experts' arguments regarding the unreliability of the old warheads, the Bush administration started up the "reliable replacement warhead" (RRW) program. In this program, aging nuclear weapons would be replaced by more "reliable" ones, drawing the criticism that it is a "backdoor" way to make new nuclear weapons.
It turns out that the Bush administration's RRW program is only the tip of the nuclear weapons iceberg. While everyone has been focusing on Iran's nuclear program, a story reported by the LA Times flew way under the radar:
The Bush administration Wednesday [April 5, 2006] unveiled a blueprint for rebuilding the nation's decrepit nuclear weapons complex, including restoration of a large-scale bomb manufacturing capacity.
The plan calls for the most sweeping realignment and modernization of the nation's massive system of laboratories and factories for nuclear bombs since the end of the Cold War.
Until now, the nation has depended on carefully maintaining aging bombs produced during the Cold War arms race, some several decades old. The administration, however, wants the capability to turn out 125 new nuclear bombs per year by 2022, as the Pentagon retires older bombs that it says will no longer be reliable or safe.
[Bold emphasis mine.]
For those of us who remember the Cold War days, this will be déjà vu all over again. For those of you who didn't grow up in the 1980s, you're about to get a taste of the Reagan administration, only dumber.
Click here to read the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) press release. According to the NNSA, the purpose of the new program is "to establish a smaller, more efficient nuclear weapons complex able to respond to future challenges." In other words, it's time to become a leaner, meaner world nuclear power, where deterrence/defense is the name of the game... supposedly.
The plan includes a "consolidated plutonium center", where the nation's plutonium would be kept for research, as well as weapon manufacturing purposes. The LA Times article continues:
Under the plan, all of the nation's plutonium would be consolidated into a single facility that could be more effectively and cheaply defended against possible terrorist attacks. The plan would remove the plutonium kept at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory by 2014, though transfers of the material could start sooner. In recent years, concern has grown that Livermore, surrounded by residential neighborhoods in the Bay Area, could not repel a terrorist attack.
But the administration blueprint is facing sharp criticism, both from those who say it does not move fast enough to consolidate plutonium stores and from those who say restarting bomb production would encourage aspiring nuclear powers across the globe to develop weapons.
In light of the current Iran situation, the part of the last sentence that I've highlighted in bold is exactly why this news is incredibly important right now. If you read the NNSA press release as well as their deputy defense program administrator's testimony before the House Armed Services committee (pdf), you'll see that "take apart old bombs and streamline the system" means that we are entering a grey area regarding nuclear proliferation, as the program administrator acknowleges in the LA Times:
The plan was outlined to Congress on Wednesday by Thomas D'Agostino, head of nuclear weapons programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration, a part of the Energy Department. Though the weapons proposal would restore the capacity to make new bombs, D'Agostino said it was part of a larger effort to accelerate the dismantling of aging bombs left from the Cold War.
D'Agostino acknowledged in an interview that the administration was walking a fine line by modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons program while assuring other nations that it was not seeking a new arms race. The credibility of the contention rests on the U.S. intent to sharply reduce its inventory of weapons.
So, this is a case of the US saying "do as I say, not as I do" to Iran, and North Korea, and Syria, and any other nation that desires a nuclear weapon program. Not surprising, given (among other examples) Bush's nuclear technology deal with India, which itself flouts the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
You'd have to be a fool to think that consolidating and providing better security for weapons-grade plutonium is a bad idea, but using it to make new "pits" for bombs...? Not high on the "good idea" list, at least not for me:
A crucial part of restarting U.S. nuclear bomb production involves so-called plutonium pits, hollow spheres surrounded by high explosives. The pits start nuclear fission and trigger the nuclear fusion in a bomb.
The plutonium pits were built at the Energy Department's former Rocky Flats site near Denver until the weapons plant was shut down in 1989 after it was found to have violated environmental regulations.
In recent years, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has tried to start limited production of plutonium pits and hopes to build a certified pit that will enter the so-called war reserve next year. Los Alamos would be producing about 30 to 50 pits per year by 2012, but the Energy Department said that was not enough to sustain the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
The article goes on to say that D'Agostino testified that plutonium pits "age" and therefore the older bombs "might result in an explosion smaller than intended...". But there is growing evidence to the contrary, and as an article in Arms Control Today puts it, "If it ain't broke...".
So, there you have it. While we were all watching Iran, what we accuse and fear the most about them was happening under our own noses, in our own backyard.