The Nuclear Zombie
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We're Spending More on Nukes Than We Did During the Cold War?!

How America is beefing up its nuclear capacity even as it tells the world it plans to cut its arsenal.

| Wed Nov. 9, 2011 4:00 AM PST

 

Nuclear secret #2: Disarmament is happening at a snail's pace.

Making our nukes obsolete is one of the lowest priorities of the nation's nuclear weapons program. Last summer, Congress and the White House agreed to reduce the amount spent on dismantlement, while agreeing to sink extra cash into plans to increase the usefulness of our semiretired atomic arsenal. In 2012, spending on new nuclear weapons experiments and the construction of "refurbishment" facilities for warheads will increase to $4.1 billion; the government will spend just $57 million on taking apart old nukes, close to half what was spent in 2010—and less than 1 percent of the nuclear complex's total budget.

The contractors who take old bombs apart are the same ones who pimp out the updated ones. "The public perception is that Pantex is primarily about dismantlement. That's false," says Jay Coghlan, the director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a source of open-source information on US nuclear weapons facilities. "Dismantlements are basically being done as filler between 'life extension' programs." The dismantlement program, he adds, "is a little bit of a sideshow."

"The Soviets are long gone, yet the stockpiles remain. The bombs collect dust, yet the bills are with us to this day," wrote Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in a recent letter (PDF) to Congress' budget supercommittee, urging it to slash an "outdated radioactive relic" whose billions could be better spent shoring up Medicare or Social Security. "Fewer nuclear weapons should equal less funding."

"Dismantlements are basically being done as filler between 'life extension' programs," says the director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

Sixty-five Democratic members of Congress cosigned Markey's letter. But cutting the nuclear complex down to size remains a tough sell on Capitol Hill. "Nuclear abolition is a long way off," declared Rep. Turner at a hearing about the nation's nuclear stockpile in late July. He wasn't complaining: Turner is one of many Republicans on Capitol Hill who want to keep spending billions on upgrading and "modernizing" our atomic weaponry. "Full funding for nuclear modernization is costly, and difficult in these challenging economic times," he insisted. "But it is necessary."

Generally, congressional conservatives' advocacy for a robust nuclear program has not been tempered by their small-government rhetoric. When New START came before the Senate for ratification in 2010, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.)—an atomic-weapons stalwart who's now a member of the Senate budget supercommittee—blocked a vote until the Obama administration conceded to spending $87 billion "modernizing" the stockpile over the next 10 years.

 

Nuclear secret #3: Funding for the nuclear weapons complex is growing.

Though the Pentagon controls the bulk of the nuclear weapons budget, the politically powerful National Nuclear Security Administration also has a tight grip on its purse strings. Part of the Department of Energy, the NNSA is responsible for securing the nation's stockpile as well as overseeing sites where atomic weaponry is built and the nation's three nuclear labs (Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia).

As federal programs are being scrutinized for fat, the NNSA's budget is increasing by 19 percent to
$7.6 billion.

Much of the NNSA's leadership is drawn from the labs and their allies from top government contracting firms. Its current No. 2 official previously worked in the private sector as a consultant for Sandia Lab and the DOE; its top administrator for defense programs spent three decades running Sandia's biggest experiments. The NNSA is known for rarely saying no to its labs' big-ticket demands. "The three labs are accustomed to the style in which they were born," Coghlan says. "Large and lavish." Half of NNSA's budget goes to the labs' research. Dr. Robert Civiak, a former physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who now researches the nuclear weapons complex for a network of anti-atomic activist groups, says much of that research is unnecessary. "Its purpose is to improve the fourth-decimal point of our understanding of behavior of nuclear weapons," he says. "That's a mature science we've had for 70 years."

In just the past year, the Government Accountability Office has issued four reports criticizing NNSA's ability to keep control of its operations and costs. "NNSA cannot accurately identify the total costs to operate and maintain weapons facilities and infrastructure," one states. Another knocks the agency for not properly inspecting its contractors' work. Yet another found that the agency does not have estimated total costs or completion dates for 15 "vital" projects to keep the stockpile up to date. The reports made 20 recommendations for remedial action.

Yet the White House and Congress continue to increase the labs' budget. Thanks to the administration's concessions to congressional Republicans during the New START ratification process, the NNSA will get an additional $85 billion more over the next decade. At a time when federal programs are being scrutinized for fat, the NNSA's 2012 budget is increasing by 19 percent to $7.6 billion.

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