Retaining Nuclear Know-how

in Program

By Elizabeth Turpen – Our nuclear arsenal and the scientific infrastructure that ensures its safety, reliability and performance are entering a new and potentially destabilizing phase. This is based on a confluence of current events, including: 1) the change in administration; 2) a congressional commission on US strategic posture already underway and a legislative mandate for a new posture review in 2009; 3) insufficient consensus in Congress on the role of our nuclear forces; 4) lack of progress on obtaining key elements of 2001 Posture Review’s “responsive infrastructure,” and; 5) recent retirements and changes in committee leadership in Congress. This constellation of factors has the potential to give rise to decisions that would be to the detriment of our nation’s scientific base and our national security.

On the campaign trail, President Obama embraced the vision of a nuclear free world, but he made clear that until the time such a world was possible, the US would maintain a “robust deterrent.” Resolving the inherent tension in these divergent goals is no easy task. The backbone of our deterrent is the scientific base at our nuclear weapons laboratories, namely, Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories. In order to recruit, train and retain young, talented scientists our political leaders must articulate a vision for the Laboratories that translates into meaningful work – a mission young scientists can embrace and to which they will dedicate their professional lives. Simultaneously, the work to achieve the vision must cause minimal concern regarding the overall trajectory of US nuclear weapons policy in order to facilitate achievement of our nonproliferation goals.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has not managed to achieve a widespread bipartisan consensus on the role of its nuclear weapons. This lack of consensus became most obvious in the years following the Bush Administration’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, when both Republican and Democrat led Congresses were unwilling to pursue key elements of what was deemed by the previous administration as necessary to achieve a robust, responsive nuclear weapons infrastructure. In light of President Obama’s commitment to pursue a nuclear free world and the state of the U.S. economy, many anticipate a steady decline in nuclear weapons budget. This requires achieving a rather tricky balance for the foreseeable future – a sufficiently capable scientific infrastructure to be successful stewards of the weapons while ensuring that budget reductions do not eviscerate the science and technology base applicable to contemporary national security challenges.

In past decades, the size of the nuclear weapons budget allowed for a healthy amount of high risk, long-term basic research at the weapons laboratories – much of it growing out of but diverging from the core weapons-related capabilities. Importantly, the diverse capabilities resident at these laboratories permitted other national security agencies to tap that scientific expertise on an “as needed” basis without making the long-term investments necessary to build and sustain it. For example, the intelligence community relies on the laboratories to assess foreign nuclear weapons programs; the Department of Homeland Security utilizes the expertise at the labs to evaluate the vulnerabilities of our nation’s critical infrastructures to both terrorist attacks and natural disasters. In short, a generous nuclear weapons budget created these robust, multidisciplinary laboratories brimming with critical capabilities that could be leveraged on the cheap. These capabilities have begun to erode. A major adjustment in governance and budgetary sources for the laboratories will be required to avoid further erosion of our national S&T base and core nuclear weapons capabilities. The need is for a new vision and mission set that retains needed capabilities while applying them to today’s critical national security challenges. This will require making some hard choices early in the new administration.

The Office of Management and Budget recently charged the Departments of Energy and Defense with convening a study group to assess whether the nuclear weapons complex should be moved to the Pentagon or elsewhere. This is a timely and needed first step in trying to arrest the corrosion of a vital national security science and technology core. Based on the findings and recommendations of an upcoming report from a task force that the Stimson Center convened on this front, however, moving these assets to the Pentagon would not serve US objectives.

Business as usual is not an option with respect to the science and technology base within the nuclear weapons laboratories. Simply transitioning the complex to a different agency, however, will neither achieve the design of a coherent, far-reaching strategy for nor elicit shared investments in these capabilities. Such a research and development strategy must ensure that needed national security S&T capabilities are not eviscerated as the nuclear weapons “footprint” is significantly reduced. Conversely, it must ensure retention of core nuclear weapons competencies at the national laboratories while better leveraging their scientific and technological capabilities to service an array of 21st Century national security needs.

Photo: Credit is given to Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Department of Energy under whose auspices this work was performed.

Dr. Elizabeth Turpen is a Senior Associate with the Cooperative Nonproliferation Program at the Stimson Center.


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