Senator Strangelove

New Mexico’s Pete Domenici is doing everything he can to ensure the future of all things nuclear.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Pete Domenici is a man on a crusade. The senior senator from New Mexico wants to change the way Americans think. For far too long, Domenici preaches, we have let our beliefs about nuclear energy be governed by fear rather than a recognition of all the good that it brings to the world. So the powerful six-term legislator, chairman of both the Budget Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, is wielding his considerable clout for the promotion of all things nuclear.

In frequent public appearances at colleges, industry gatherings, and international forums, Domenici can’t seem to find enough good to say about nuclear energy. He has praised food irradiation while questioning the dangers of low-level exposure. He has attacked Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) guidelines as “having a questionable impact on safety” while “their impact on the price of nuclear energy is far more obvious.” He has called for publicly funded education initiatives to counter “misleading slogans from the antinuclear groups.” He has described the Kyoto Protocol restricting greenhouse gas emissions as a virtual mandate for nuclear power. Last November he even told an audience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that he was “surprised no environmental group has championed nuclear energy” and that it should be “viewed as an environmentally preferred electricity source.”

Domenici delivers the gospel of nuclear power with such evangelical single-mindedness that last year he went to Russia to give a July 4 address to the almost surreally named Youth and the Global Political Challenges of Plutonium conference and — without ever mentioning the name Chernobyl — claimed that nuclear energy helps in the “protection of vital freedoms.”

In the words of his chief of staff, Steve Bell, the senator is dedicated to “rekindling a national debate on nuclear power.” Domenici and his staff have a term for the philosophy they try to promote every day. They call it the “new nuclear paradigm.”

“What the new nuclear paradigm means is this,” explains Bell. “If you are going to be in a world in which the use of nuclear energy is severely constrained, what new things do you think government ought to encourage and science ought to do to make a world in which nuclear weapons and nuclear waste are acceptable? We have done an extraordinary amount of work to make that happen.”

Bell isn’t exaggerating. In 1998, concerned that the NRC’s regulations were too stringent in general, Sen. Domenici threatened to cut the commission’s budget by $90 million. This year, he was instrumental in securing more than $27 million to reevaluate the health effects of low-level radiation and to research a plan to reduce the half-life of plutonium waste (a byproduct of nuclear weapons development) by bombarding it with high-energy proton beams in a linear accelerator at Los Alamos, New Mexico. An independent audit of the plan by MIT noted that while it would cost at least $40 billion, the effect on the nation’s nuclear waste problem would be minimal — if the plan even worked.

“He has anointed himself the savior of the U.S. nuclear industry,” says physicist Ed Lyman, scientific director of the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Control Institute, a nonprofit research center focused on the problem of nuclear proliferation. “He has this notion that if he can funnel enough money into various projects he can rekindle the moribund nuclear industry.”

Nothing better demonstrates Domenici’s effectiveness in promoting his new nuclear paradigm than his salvation of the nation’s weapons labs. Two of the Department of Energy’s three weapons labs — Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories — are in New Mexico and are crucial to its economy, providing high-paying jobs in a state otherwise dependent on agriculture and mining. According to census figures, only Arkansas and West Virginia have lower median incomes. Revered as “Saint Pete” at the labs, Domenici has been able to safely navigate America’s nuclear weapons program through the fall of the Soviet Union as a superpower, the pressure in Washington to balance the budget, and the election of a cost-cutting, supposedly small-government- oriented, Republican Congress in 1994.

In spite of all these factors, Domenici hasn’t just preserved funding for the weapons labs; he has actually managed to secure significantly more money for them. During the Cold War, the Department of Energy (DOE) spent an average of $3.7 billion annually (adjusted for inflation) on nuclear weapons research and development, testing, and production. Today, the annual cost of the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP), which replaces those Cold War efforts, stands at $4.5 billion. “Would there be a Stockpile Stewardship Program today if it wasn’t for Pete Domenici?” Bell asks rhetorically. “The answer is no.”

In a sense there are two Pete Domenicis. the first is the fiscally conservative chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, who has earned praise from both sides of the political aisle for his pragmatic approach to policymaking. This is the public man, the one Democrats are attracted to: the man who so incensed Ronald Reagan in 1983 by his criticism of then-Budget Director David Stockman’s “voodoo economics” that the normally mild-mannered Gipper smashed a telephone into a wall. This is the senator known for backing mental-health initiatives, education spending, and the rights of immigrants.

Then there is the other Pete Domenici: the consummate pork-barrel politician who “brings home the bacon,” as the New Mexico Business Journal put it when it named him the state’s most influential man in 1995. This is the staunch defender of New Mexico who has made his state, proportionately, the No. 1 recipient of federal largesse in the nation, largely by assuming the role of gatekeeper of America’s nuclear weapons program. For every dollar that New Mexico sends to Washington, it gets back about two in federal funding, an average of $7,200 per resident. Bell, who has worked for congressional heavyweights Howard Baker and Bob Dole, boasts that his current boss will be remembered as “the single most effective legislator in the last quarter of the 20th century.”

Domenici’s power in Congress helped him raise nearly $3.5 million for his most recent reelection campaign (1996), although he perennially wins his seat by a landslide. More than $425,000 of that came from political action committees and individuals tied to energy and defense-related companies, including Lockheed Martin, which manages Sandia, and General Electric, a leading developer of nuclear technology.

The weapons labs and their subcontractors have also been generous participants in those election efforts; from 1991 through 1996, individuals and PACs tied to the labs and their defense work put more than $165,000 into the senator’s campaign coffers.

The labs also provide Domenici with a full-time “science adviser,” Peter Lyons, a physicist at Los Alamos whose $159,000 annual salary is paid by the labs. Many of those who have dealt with Lyons believe him to be a member of Domenici’s staff — a public servant — not a paid employee of the labs. The American Gas Association’s guide to congressional staff even lists him as an “energy legislative assistant” to Domenici. “It is unfair to the taxpayer that you have a person like Pete Lyons in that position,” says one Los Alamos physicist, who asked not to be identified, adding that Lyons is there to “protect the interests of the University of California,” which manages Los Alamos.

The Department of Energy describes the SSP as necessary to maintain the “safety and reliability” of the nation’s nuclear arsenal without compiling data through actual test explosions. Critics say that kind of language is little more than a smoke screen to mask the program’s real purpose: to maintain the status quo of nuclear weapons design and testing through the use of supercomputers, subcritical nuclear testing, and other sophisticated simulations.

From the beginning, the SSP has been tied to the prospect of getting Senate support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which President Clinton signed in 1996. It would take a two-thirds Senate vote to approve the treaty, a proposition that has become increasingly remote. If the Senate does not approve it, the United States’ efforts to rally international support for the treaty will ring hollow. And without Domenici to coax reluctant Republicans, approval will almost certainly not happen.

“If we were going to sign on to the CTBT, both the executive and the Senate would have had to be satisfied that [guaranteeing a reliable arsenal] was achievable,” explains Charles Curtis, who, as former deputy secretary of energy, helped draw up plans for the SSP. “The SSP was that means.” Domenici, in turn, would ensure that funding for the program was kept high. “This program emerged at a time when we were facing very significant fiscal disciplines,” says Curtis. “Domenici played an essential, pivotal role in providing the fiscal funds on an annual basis.”

Christopher Paine, a senior analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, helped craft early versions of legislation to ban nuclear testing when he was an aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy in the late ’80s. He says that when the CTBT was being formulated by the Clinton administration, he “observed firsthand how when Pete Domenici whistled, everybody jumped.

“The administration was trying to craft a bipartisan compromise on testing,” says Paine. “They did that by giving Domenici everything he wanted on the SSP.” It turned out to be a dream come true for the laboratories.

Critics point out two fundamental problems with the SSP. The first is that it pushes the limits of allowable testing under the CTBT. “We have signed treaties that are intended to slow down and end the arms race,” says Lowell Ungar, an aide to Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), one of the most vocal SSP critics in Congress. “In its present form the program appears to be continuing it. It is damaging to tell others not to develop nuclear weapons when your own program continues.”

Outsiders see the U.S. program as ongoing because we continue to conduct controversial subcritical nuclear tests. Carried out at the Nevada Test Site, which Lockheed Martin co-manages, these tests are nearly identical to normal nuclear weapons tests. High explosives are used to generate a controlled nuclear reaction, which is suppressed before reaching the full, critical stage of a nuclear blast. Data from the test can then be used to predict the dynamic profile of a full explosion.

Critics say this clearly subverts the treaty, which calls for the “cessation of all nuclear weapon test explosions and all other nuclear explosions, by constraining the development and qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons and ending the development of advanced new types of nuclear weapons.” Indeed, when India staged its nuclear test last year, it issued a press release saying it would only sign a “truly comprehensive international arrangement which would prohibit underground nuclear testing of all weapons as well as related experiments described as ‘subcritical.'” The European Parliament has similarly voiced its disapproval of subcritical tests.

The second criticism of the SSP is that it is simply a waste of money. Today it boasts such projects as the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative, a supercomputer-development plan, which, according to the General Accounting Office, may eventually cost more than $5 billion (and which Chris Mechels, a former Los Alamos computer systems manager, describes as likely to “be obsolete before it is even created”). Another project is the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamics Test (DARHT) facility, a pair of high-intensity-X-ray machines used to simulate the effects of nuclear explosions. Originally slated to cost $110 million and be ready earlier this year, DARHT will have ballooned to about $260 million and will be only partially complete by year’s end. “Their budgets,” says Mechels, “are just an exercise in wishful thinking. Los Alamos is notorious for never bringing in anything on budget and on time.” Construction costs alone for planned SSP facilities at the Los Alamos lab will total about $1.2 billion over the next few years.

Some say the emphasis on fancy gadgets for virtual testing is counter to the program’s goal of maintaining a reliable nuclear arsenal. “The main thing you have to be able to do is refabricate nuclear weapons,” says Frank von Hipple, who was assistant director for national security in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy when plans for the SSP were drawn up. “You don’t need to design new nuclear weapons. We are doing things we don’t need to do as part of a political deal to get the laboratories to accept a comprehensive test ban.”

Von Hipple, now a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University, also criticizes the agreement to keep annual funding set at an artificial $4.5 billion. “In effect, there was a deal made and it was enforced at the National Security Council without any focus on what the money was going to be spent for,” von Hipple says. “The overall total was seen as a political number. That is not the way ordinary programs are reviewed. Programs are supposed to be justified on what they are supposed to accomplish.”

But critics admit that prospects for curtailing the SSP are slim. Few legislators have the political capital to challenge Domenici. And the administration remains beholden to him as long as ratification of the test ban is pending. Domenici, meanwhile, remains noncommittal on whether he will support the CTBT, although he has said in no uncertain terms that he will not support the treaty without vigorous funding of the SSP.

Nowhere is Domenici’s blind support for New Mexico’s labs more evident than in his efforts to keep alive a giant accelerator project at Los Alamos. The lab’s first experience with giant accelerators was during the Reagan administration’s failed Star Wars program. And while using accelerators to destroy missiles is an idea few think will come again, Domenici finds ways to keep the project going. “Any nuclear waste bill that is moving through Congress in this day and age, Domenici looks at and asks, ‘Will this be the train that will pull along the accelerator project?'” says Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a disarmament-advocacy group based in Santa Fe.

One plan was to convert the accelerator project into a tool to produce tritium, a radioactive gas essential to the trigger mechanism of a nuclear bomb. Because of decay, the tritium in each weapon must be replaced every 12 years. This year, however, the DOE found a cheaper solution: It would use a specialized reactor that could produce tritium for a fraction of the cost of using the giant accelerator. But Domenici has still managed to keep the accelerator funded at $10 million per year for at least the next several years — as a backup option.

The latest scheme is the Accelerator-Driven Transmutation of Waste (ATW), in which the giant accelerator would be used to bombard plutonium with X-rays, making it more radioactive but reducing its half-life. MIT’s analysis of the project notes that even with full funding over 40 years, only a tiny portion of America’s plutonium could possibly be transmuted. “This really is a way for some pronuclear fanatics to revive failed and dangerous breeder technology,” says Anna Aurelio, a staff scientist at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “It would cost an enormous amount of money and divert scarce taxpayer funds away from programs that could be good for the environment.”

But to Los Alamos, it would mean an extra $40 billion in funding over 60 years. So despite MIT’s damaging evaluation, Domenici managed to secure $15 million in this year’s Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill to continue ATW research.

The senator’s quest to forge a nuke-friendly world will no doubt continue until, in Steve Bell’s words, “nuclear energy will be an absolutely important element whenever people talk about clean air and clean water.” So while the rest of the world protests on Hiroshima Day and worries about the next Chernobyl, Pete Domenici works to bring about a new — presumably safer and cleaner — nuclear future. It all sounds disturbingly like those carefree days of the 1950s, when the nation had high hopes for nuclear energy — the days when Eisenhower was president, the Nevada Test Site buzzed with activity, and the atom was still king.


We have about a $170,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign that ends Saturday. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods


We have about a $170,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign that ends Saturday. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.