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 7:00 AM EST

 

Nuclear secret #4: We're developing the next generation of nuclear weapons.

An hour's drive from San Francisco, scientists are trying to create a miniature star here on Earth. That's how the Livermore lab describes its National Ignition Facility, a superlaser that's supposed to produce nuclear fusion and temperatures of 100 million degrees—conditions found only in distant suns and nuclear explosions. So far, the 14-year old project has been a bust; the New York Times dubbed it a "taxpayer-funded science fiction." Yet its expense has swelled: It was expected to cost $400 million but has cost $3.9 billion and counting.

Bringing star power to Earth: Lawrence Livermore National LaboratoryBig bucks, little bang: promotional material for the $3.9 billion National Ignition Facility Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

How does the lab justify keeping this far-out science experiment alive in a time of austerity? Simple: national security. Canceling the project, lab director George Miller told the Los Angeles Times when some members of Congress challenged NIF's funding, is to  "seriously question the commitment to maintain nuclear weapons." Livermore's research budget has expanded 50 percent since 1994 to nearly $1.5 billion.

The laser project is one of dozens of gold-plated experiments run at the Department of Energy's three nuclear weapons facilities. The Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is building a new plant to process uranium for the secondary explosives used in warheads, even though the country already has thousands of extra secondaries in storage. In 2004, the plant was expected to cost $600 million; the tab has since increased to $3.5 billion. The federal government is also sinking $4.5 billion into a 1.5 million square-foot plant in Kansas City, Missouri, which will build new components for nuclear weapons.

Y-12, Kansas City, and a nebulous new Los Alamos center for "Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement" constitute "grossly oversized facilities for building new bombs we don't need," Civiak says. Together, they could facilitate the construction of new warhead cores and missile skins. The labs could test those weapons without live explosions by using technology such as the NIF. "The production side of the US nuclear weapons complex is being rebuilt," Coghlan says.

Proponents of spending more on the stockpile say that one way to get rid of more warheads is to make sure the ones you hang onto remain in tip-top condition. Rep. Turner has also defended a robust stockpile and modernization as "providing meaningful work to our talented scientists and engineers"—even as he warned that "strategy must drive force structure, not the other way around."

 

"The production side of the US nuclear weapons complex is being rebuilt."

But critics maintain that modernization is a boondoggle and an expensive make-work program for the nation's nuclear labs. "There's no rush to do this," says Tom Collina, research director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan weapons-policy think tank. Though United States hasn't built a new warhead since 1989, "it's not like they're falling apart; it's not like they're Swiss cheese." The JASON group, a prestigious panel of scientists that advises the government on technology issues, studied the arsenal in 2007 and 2009 and concluded that existing measures could extend the warheads' lifetimes "for decades, with no anticipated loss of confidence."

"There's a lot of things that need regular upkeep on nuclear weapons—batteries and tritium that decay over time," Civiak explains. But life extension and modernization efforts, he says, are "going way beyond that, and they're adding new capabilities."

Upgrades include a "dial-a-yield" option that lets missile officers adjust a warhead's explosive power; for example, dialing down a 340-kiloton city killer to be a 0.3-kiloton mini-Hiroshima. "Dumb" gravity bombs are being refitted so that the altitude at which they burst can be modified—essentially enabling them to act as "robust nuclear earth penetrators," or bunker busters.

Upgrades include a "dial-a-yield" option that lets missile officers adjust a warhead's explosive power.

Civiak says new "safety measures" to adjust the accuracy of atomic missiles will in fact make them potential first-strike weapons. For example, improving missiles' guidance can turn "countervalue weapons" —big bombs once aimed at population centers as a deterrent—into "counterforce weapons"—tactical nukes that could be used in "limited" nuclear attacks on military or terrorist targets. "Counterforce strays away from deterrence," Coghlan says.

David Dearborn, a longtime nuclear weapons engineer at the Livermore lab, insists that most of these post-Cold War modifications have safety at their heart. "Earlier, it was about reducing size and weight or getting more bang," but now "it's about higher safety, designing things that you could machine-gun and hammer and they would not go off." As long as the United States has a nuclear stockpile, he says, "You ought to know that it works."

Advocates of nuclear reduction say that's a canard. "That sounds nice in theory. Who in principle can be against greater safety?" Coghlan says. But combine all these "safety enhancements," he says, and "in effect, they're new warheads."

 

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