Planned nuke facilities raise concerns

Activists hold hands after being placed under arrest outside the new Kansas City, Mo., weapons plant construction site May 2. (NCR photo/Joshua J. McElwee)

In the wake of sharply focused protests against U.S. nuclear weapons facilities over the past month, weapons analysts appear divided on the intent of U.S. weapons’ policies, raising as many questions as providing answers.

At a time of pressing budget deficits, President Obama last May pledged $80 billion over the next decade for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. That money was the price for winning key Republican support in the U.S. Senate for the ratification of the New START treaty, aimed at reducing the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons arsenals to 1,550 deployed warheads each.

On the surface, the breach in logic of paying billions -- including an estimated $1.2 billion over two decades to build a new weapons production plant in Kansas City, Mo. -- while cutting back on the nation’s nuclear arsenal has not escaped the most vociferous weapons’ critics.

Calling attention to that very fact, 52 people were arrested at the construction site for the new Kansas City facility May 2. Holding signs calling for the “transformation” of the complex to green energy use, the group blocked a gate to the site before being taken into custody.

The act of civil disobedience came after a three-day conference that saw 150 gather from as far away as South Dakota to raise awareness of the facility, which will replace an existing one responsible for the production of 85 percent of the nonnuclear parts of each of the weapons in the nuclear arsenal.

In a similar gathering, more than 160 people came together April 16 in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to protest a proposed new uranium facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex. Activists there marched two miles through the downtown area of the city, hosted a vigil, and placed peace cranes on the fence surrounding the complex (NCR, April 29).

The new Oak Ridge facility, estimated by the government to cost up to $6.5 billion, is said to be needed by the National Nuclear Security Administration to “support production and surveillance of highly-enriched uranium components.”

A third proposed complex at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico is set to join the Oak Ridge and Kansas City ones. Called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility, it is to increase U.S. ability to produce plutonium pits -- the “heart” of the nuclear weapon -- from approximately 20 to 80 annually.

The actions at the Oak Ridge and Kansas City facilities highlight a series of questions nuclear weapons analysts who spoke to NCR raised about the need, scope and direction of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex.

Much of the U.S. nuclear weapons program remains cloaked in secrecy. Meanwhile, nuclear weapons analysts themselves are divided on whether the U.S. will use the new facilities to upgrade its existing arsenal, or to go forward with the building of a new generation of nuclear weapons.

Within a Catholic moral context, the difference is not a mere matter of semantics. According to the 1983 U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter on war and peace, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” U.S. nuclear deterrence is “justifiable only in conjunction with resolute determination to pursue arms control and disarmament.”

While most of the analysts interviewed by NCR agreed that new projects of some scope may be needed to replace aging, World War II-era facilities at the project sites, they disagreed on whether the planned replacements would fundamentally shift the nation’s nuclear weapons posture away from the eventual disarmament promised by Obama in a speech in Prague, Czech Republic, in April 2009.

Two of the key questions raised by analysts:

  • If the United States is planning to reduce the number of its nuclear warheads following passage of the New START treaty, are the new facilities necessary?

  • If they are necessary, what impact will their construction -- and reinvestment in our nuclear weapons program -- have on perceptions abroad about our intent to reduce our nuclear weapons stockpile and eventually disarm?

The key breaking point for agreement between some of the experts is whether the new facilities represent a restarting of the nation’s nuclear weapons production capability.

Speaking to that question, Douglas Shaw, an assistant professor of international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, answered: “That’s a conclusion that I think is hard to avoid.”

Shaw, who also held a position at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under President Clinton, said the construction plans at the three facilities fall under a framework outlined by President George W. Bush’s administration, known by the term “responsive infrastructure.”

That framework was put forward in the Bush administration’s 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, an assessment of the roles and missions for U.S. nuclear forces put forward by every president since the end of the Cold War.

Excerpts from the review that were submitted to Congress in December 2001 described the framework as the “ability to respond to large strategic changes” by looking for “new approaches to development and procurement of new capabilities” for the nation’s nuclear weapons force.

Placing the planned new facilities in the context of the nine-year-old review, Shaw said they put a point on the idea that we may need to be able to produce new nuclear weapons to “deal with [an] uncertain future.”

The Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, released in April 2010, makes no mention of the “responsive” nuclear weapons framework.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said that review made clear that “we’re not going to develop new types of nuclear weapons.”

Yet the head of the nonprofit organization admitted there is a “risk” that the new facilities, once completed, could be used to increase the number of weapons in the U.S. arsenal.

“There is a possibility that, yes, a future president could change the existing policy,” Kimball said. “We pay more attention to what [U.S.] policy is. I’m not quite as concerned about that risk if the policy remains that the United States is not going to develop nuclear weapons.”

The question of whether the new facilities would give the U.S. the capability to produce new nuclear weapons raised concerns for other analysts about how they might affect the nation’s compliance with the recently approved New START treaty.

That arms reduction treaty, which entered into force Feb. 5, obligates both the U.S. and Russia to enhance “predictability concerning the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms.”

The planned new U.S. production facilities may undermine that predictability by making cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal effectively reversible at any time, said Nickolas Roth, a policy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Reductions are accomplished by dismantling warheads,” Roth said. “If the U.S. has the capacity to build far more warheads than it takes apart, what does that mean?”

That unpredictability in whether nuclear weapons reductions may at one point be reversed may have larger implications for the country’s ability to negotiate future arms treaties with other nations who may wish to bolster their arsenals, Roth said.

“If the U.S. has 1,000 warheads, for instance, but has the capability to build 80-125 new ones per year, how is the U.S. going to be able to negotiate with other countries to reduce their total stockpile?”

[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is]

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