The Nuclear Weapons Budget Enters The Spin Cycle

Originally published here.

Over the past couple of years, the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages have become a full-blown nuclear policy battleground. We’ve seen editorials written by the “Four Statesmen” (Shultz, Perry, Nunn, and Kissinger) advocating for elimination of nuclear weapons; we’ve seen Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) call for new nuclear tests. We’ve even seen Kyl team up with crusty old neoconservatives like Richard Perle to repeat gross inaccuracies and well-worn talking points about our nuclear arsenal being “ineffective” because it’s “decaying”, and that we need new nuclear weapons (refuted here).

Last week, Vice President Biden threw down the gauntlet with a Wall Street Journal op-ed of his own, in which he gave a preview of what was going to be in the FY2011 budget:

Among the many challenges our administration inherited was the slow but steady decline in support for our nuclear stockpile and infrastructure, and for our highly trained nuclear work force…


The budget we will submit to Congress on Monday both reverses this decline and enables us to implement the president’s nuclear-security agenda. These goals are intertwined. The same skilled nuclear experts who maintain our arsenal play a key role in guaranteeing our country’s security now and for the future. State-of-the art facilities, and highly trained and motivated people, allow us to maintain our arsenal without testing. They will help meet the president’s goal of securing vulnerable nuclear materials world-wide in the coming years, and enable us to track and thwart nuclear trafficking, verify weapons reductions, and to develop tomorrow’s cutting-edge technologies for our security and prosperity.

To achieve these goals, our budget devotes $7 billion for maintaining our nuclear-weapons stockpile and complex, and for related efforts. This commitment is $600 million more than Congress approved last year. And over the next five years we intend to boost funding for these important activities by more than $5 billion. Even in a time of tough budget decisions, these are investments we must make for our security. We are committed to working with Congress to ensure these budget increases are approved.

Obama’s vision of the decreasing role of nuclear weapons in US policy has always been accompanied by the caveat that the elimination of these weapons would most likely not occur in his lifetime, and that:

…[A]s long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary…

Yet despite this fact, Biden’s editorial was met by plenty of spin, including accusations of “broken promises“, and implications that there are perhaps plans in the works for the production of new nuclear warheads.

Both of these ideas are inaccurate, as well as an extreme oversimplification of what is actually a rather complex budget proposal.

First of all, when we talk about the “nuclear weapons budget”, we’re talking about the National Nuclear Safety Administration’s budget. The FY2011 proposal is a 598 page pdf. Nuclear non-proliferation analysts Stephen Schwartz and Deepti Choubey point out that the nuclear security budget covers a number of different areas, including the dismantlement of nuclear weapons and the subsequent (highly secure) storage of bomb-grade plutonium and uranium. It also covers maintenance of not only the warheads, but all associated delivery systems and infrastructure; the NNSA budget also includes threat reduction programs abroad, such as securing fissile material (a.k.a. “loose nukes). There are other uses for the money as well.

Secondly, let’s go back to that huge pdf. Before anyone jumps to conclusions about “new nuclear weapons”, I’ll just quote directly from p. 49 of that document (bold emphasis mine):

The means and strategies to be employed encompass all major aspects of the deterrent: the stockpile itself; the science, technology, and engineering base which underpins the nation’s ability to sustain the stockpile as safe, secure, and effective; and the production and laboratory physical infrastructure. Technical issues within the stockpile will be identified and addressed because new weapons systems will not be built. The stockpile management program will undertake life extension work on legacy weapons systems to assure their effectiveness, while enhancing warhead safety and security, without requiring additional underground nuclear tests.

This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the proposed funding. Why? Because, as I’ve written previously, a goal of the Obama administration is to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Global implications of US ratification of the treaty would be profound, to say the least. If Senate naysayers are calmed by additional funding for maintenance and upkeep of the nuclear deterrent, and are therefore more comfortable voting for CTBT, and even START, ratification, it is worth it. (Please click here for related commentary by Dr. Jeffrey Lewis at Arms Control Wonk.)

The part of the funding that has various non-governmental organizations concerned is mostly the following (pdf):

Proposed DoE funding also includes large increases for a facility that will expand plutonium production in Los Alamos, New Mexico and for a new highly enriched uranium production facility near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, each estimated to cost about $3 billion. The CMRR plutonium facility at LANL increased from $97M in FY10 to $225 million in FY11. Y-12’s Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) also increases to $115M from $94M in FY 2010.

The plans are to have the CMRR fully operational by 2022, and an adjoining plutonium pit reuse/refabrication facility ready to go by approximately 2018. Conceivably, the LANL and Y-12 facilities could be used as part of a production plan for new warheads in the not-so-near future, but the chances of the Obama administration doing that are vanishingly small, especially given the wording in the actual budget request, that there will be no new weapons systems.

So, I feel that those concerns are unfounded at this point, though it’s important to bring them up and keep them in mind as things develop over the next few years; I’m counting on Greg Mello at the Los Alamos Study Group to keep up the good work in that area.

Finally, I think it’s important to note that this funding may be a significant increase, but it’s not a surprise. Obama is not breaking any promises; he is not increasing our nuclear capabilities, but is keeping his commitment to a modern, credible deterrent. Spinning it as a “broken promise” is not accurate, to say the least.

Side note: If you’re interested in reading more about specific aspects of the FY2011 budget for the NNSA, check out Kingston Reif’s posts over at the Nukes of Hazard, here and here. Also make sure you download the three page summary of the budget (pdf), as well as the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation’s booklet on the entire defense budget, which includes nuclear weapons allocations (pdf). John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal also had a good article; you’ll have to sit through a short ad in order to read it.

This entry was posted in Nuclear Weapons and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>