U.S. expands production of nuclear weapons


Richard Moore


     Bush Administration Unveils Nuclear Weapons Complex Blueprint
     By Ralph Vartabedian
     The Los Angeles Times
     Thursday 06 April 2006

     The administration's proposal would modernize the nation's 
complex of laboratories and factories as well as produce new bombs.
     The Bush administration on Wednesday unveiled a blueprint for 
rebuilding the United States' decrepit nuclear weapons complex, 
including restoration of a large-scale bomb manufacturing capacity.
     The plan calls for the most sweeping realignment and 
modernization of the nation's massive system of laboratories and 
factories for nuclear bombs since the end of the Cold War.
     Until now, the nation has depended on carefully maintaining aging 
bombs produced during the Cold War arms race, some several decades 
old. The administration, however, wants the capability to turn out 
125 new nuclear bombs per year by 2022, as the Pentagon retires older 
bombs that it claims will no longer be reliable or safe.
     Under the plan, all of the nation's plutonium would be 
consolidated into a single facility that could be more effectively 
and cheaply defended against possible terrorist attacks. The plan 
would remove the plutonium now kept at Lawrence Livermore National 
Laboratory by 2014, though transfers of the material could start 
sooner. In recent years, concern has sharply grown that Livermore, 
surrounded by residential neighborhoods, could not repel a terrorist 
     But the administration blueprint is facing sharp criticism, both 
from those who say it does not move fast enough to consolidate 
plutonium stores and from those who say restarting bomb production 
will encourage aspiring nuclear powers across the globe to develop 
     The plan was outlined to Congress on Wednesday by Thomas 
D'Agostino, head of nuclear weapons programs at the National Nuclear 
Security Administration, a part of the Energy Department. While the 
weapons proposal would restore the capacity to make new bombs, 
D'Agostino said it is part of a larger effort to accelerate the 
dismantling of aging bombs left from the Cold War.
     D'Agostino acknowledged in an interview that the Administration 
is walking a fine line by modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons 
program while assuring other nations that it is not seeking a new 
arms race. The credibility of the argument rests on the U.S. intent 
to sharply reduce its overall inventory of weapons.
     The administration is also moving quickly ahead with a new 
nuclear bomb program known as the "reliable replacement warhead," 
which began last year. Originally described as an effort to update 
existing weapons and make them inherently more reliable, it has been 
broadened and now includes the potential for new bomb designs. 
Weapons labs currently are engaged in a design competition.
     The U.S. built its last nuclear weapon in 1989 and last tested a 
weapon underground in 1992. Since the Cold War, the U.S. has depended 
on massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons to deter attacks. By 
contrast, it would now increasingly rely on the capability to build 
future bombs for deterrence, D'Agostino said.
     The blueprint calls for a modern complex to design a new nuclear 
bomb and have it ready in less than four years, allowing the nation 
to respond to changing military requirements. Such proposals in the 
past, such as for a nuclear bomb to attack underground bunkers, 
provoked concern that they undermine U.S. policy to stop nuclear 
     The impetus for the plan is a growing recognition that efforts to 
maintain older nuclear bombs and keep up a large nuclear weapons 
industrial complex are technically and financially unsustainable. 
Last year, a task force led by San Diego physicist David Overskei 
recommended that the Energy Department consolidate the system of 
eight existing weapons complexes into a single site.
     Overskei said Wednesday that the cost of security alone for the 
current infrastructure of plants over the next two decades is roughly 
$25 billion. Security costs have grown, because the Sept. 11 attacks 
have forced the Energy Department to assume terrorists could mount a 
larger and better armed strike force.
     Peter Stockton, a former Energy Department security consultant 
and now an investigator for the Project on Government Oversight, 
criticized the plutonium consolidation plan in House testimony, 
saying it delays the difficult work too far into the future. Stockton 
added in an interview that the plutonium transfer at Livermore could 
be accomplished in a few months.
     Until now, Livermore lab officials have sharply disagreed with 
the idea of removing plutonium from their site, saying it was 
essential to their work. On Wednesday, a lab spokesman said the issue 
is "far less controversial" and the "decision rests in Washington."
     The Bush plan, described at a hearing of the strategic 
subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, would consolidate 
much of the weapons capacity, but not as completely or quickly as 
outside critics would like.
     The overall plan would not be fully implemented until 2030. A 
critical part of restarting U.S. nuclear bomb production involves 
so-called plutonium pits, hollow spheres surrounded by high 
explosives. The pits start nuclear fission and trigger the nuclear 
fusion in a bomb.
     The plutonium pits were built at the Energy Department's former 
Rocky Flats site near Denver, until the weapons plant was shut down 
in 1989 after it violated major environmental regulations.In recent 
years, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has attempted to 
start limited production of plutonium pits and hopes to build a 
certified pit that will enter the so-called "war reserve" next year. 
Los Alamos would be producing about 30 to 50 pits per year by 2012, 
but the Energy Department said that is not enough to sustain the U.S. 
nuclear deterrent.
     In his testimony, D'Agostino estimated plutonium pits would last 
only 45 to 60 years, after which they would be too unreliable and 
might result in an explosion smaller than intended. Critics outside 
the government sharply dispute that conclusion, saying there is no 
evidence that pits degrade over time and that the nation can maintain 
an adequate nuclear deterrent by carefully maintaining its existing 

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Richard Moore (rkm)
Wexford, Ireland

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