WASHINGTON – The new federal blueprint for U.S. nuclear weapons policy unveiled at the Pentagon this month could mean more work and millions more in federal dollars for Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico, but local critics contend that it puts the nation’s nuclear complex on a more wasteful path.
The Nuclear Posture Review, ordered by President Donald Trump during his first year in office, is the first since former President Barack Obama’s review in 2010.
It was a joint project of the Pentagon, the U.S. State Department and Department of Energy. DOE oversees the National Nuclear Security Administration and New Mexico’s weapons labs. LANL in northern New Mexico has long been the nation’s primary producer of plutonium pits that trigger nuclear weapons while Sandia in Albuquerque maintains, designs and tests the stockpile.
“It is clear that our national laboratories, plants and production sites play a vital role in ensuring that the NPR priorities are met,” said Dan Brouillette, deputy energy secretary, at a Pentagon briefing to unveil the review on Feb. 2.
The 74-page posture review does not contain a specific price tag, or specify which lab would perform what work, but it offers a revealing look at the Trump administration’s nuclear weapons priorities, which include a controversial call for more “low-yield” capabilities that would allow the Pentagon to respond with relative force to a small-scale nuclear attack by a hostile nation or entity.
Democratic Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. Steve Pearce – the New Mexico delegation’s lone Republican – both voiced optimism about the roles Sandia and LANL would play under the new presidential directive. Pearce, who is running for governor of New Mexico this year, said the state’s military bases will also be called upon to help meet the goals outlined in the posture review.
“With a focus on modernization and development, the new posture places New Mexico once again in a central role in our national security plan,” Pearce said. “However, the labs are only part of how New Mexico will contribute to the goals set in the posture. White Sands Missile Range, Holloman Air Force Base and Kirtland Air Force Base are all primed to play a key role in ensuring the Department of Defense and Department of Energy achieve the goals set forth in the posture review. At the end of the day, this posture will continue to keep our labs relevant, funded, and mission critical.”
Udall, a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, also said the posture review could further enhance the labs’ national security role.
“No doubt there could be opportunities for the labs in the future especially in the evolving threats realm,” Udall said.
Meanwhile, Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico and a close observer of weapons budgets, joins other New Mexico nuclear watchdogs in contending the expensive demand for more plutonium pits and lower-yield nuclear weapons in the Nuclear Posture Review is overkill and a waste of tax dollars.
A Congressional Budget Office analysis released in late October put the cost of modernizing the nation’s nuclear weapons complex at $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years. Steve Erhart, acting under secretary for nuclear security and the current administrator the NNSA, told reporters at the Pentagon briefing that the nation’s nuclear budgets “have not kept pace with the need to modernize” the weapons complex.
The Trump administration’s FY 2019 budget – set for release Monday – will itemize how much money it wants Congress to spend on nuclear weapons next year, although Erhart said the FY 2020 NNSA budget will more closely reflect the document’s priorities than the one set for release Monday.
“I don’t have the final number, because we’re working on the complete infrastructure plan,” Erhart said. “It will be significant … and it will need to be sustained investment over the next decade.”
Trump’s document calls for upgrading the arsenal, including new bomber aircraft, submarines and land-based missiles. It also endorses adhering to existing arms control agreements, including the New START treaty that limits the United States and Russia each to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads on a maximum of 700 deployed launchers. The treaty, negotiated under President Barack Obama, entered into force in 2011.
Sandia and LANL referred the Journal’s questions about the Nuclear Posture Review to the NNSA. The Journal asked the NNSA what the Nuclear Posture Review portends for New Mexico’s weapons labs, and for a brief interview with an agency official on the issue. The NNSA did not provide the interview or any details about the New Mexico labs’ role.
But Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, President Trump’s nominee to lead the NNSA, told Congress at a hearing Thursday that the manufacture of plutonium pits – traditionally the job of Los Alamos National Laboratory – would be her “number one priority” in modernizing the NNSA infrastructure. Plutonium pits, about the size of a softball, are the fission cores that trigger a nuclear bomb. In part because of safety lapses, LANL hasn’t produced any plutonium pits since 2011.
“We do need to have a robust program to ensure that we can make pits – more reserve pits – and make sure we have a sustained capability to produce the number of war-reserved pits,” Gordon-Hagerty said. “In order to do that, we need to ensure that Congress provides us with the necessary resources. We do not have any more time.”
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat on the Senate energy committee, told Gordon-Hagerty that Los Alamos is the “nation’s center of excellence for pit production.” He noted that in 2014,the Nuclear Weapons Council and Congress endorsed a “modular building strategy” (as opposed to a big box building) for plutonium pit work at Los Alamos “that would fully meet the nation’s requirement to maintain the stockpile.”
But in December, an NNSA study suggested that the agency’s 80-pits-a-year goal could be reached more quickly and less expensively at other sites, including Savannah River in South Carolina, instead of at Los Alamos. New Mexico’s congressional delegation called the study “deeply flawed from the start.” At last week’s hearing, Heinrich complained that the NNSA’s study “totally omitted this current (modular) strategy…but instead compared new alternatives to an outdated plan that Los Alamos actually abandoned years ago.”
Gordon-Hagerty pledged to reconsider the data and “look at it from an objective viewpoint.”
“I am committed, if confirmed, to take a look at all of the relevant data,” she said.
The debate about the future of plutonium pit production could put New Mexico’s delegation on a collision course with South Carolina’s, which is led by the powerful, hawkish Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Meanwhile, budgets at Sandia in Albuquerque are expected to rise. Funding for the lab’s nuclear life extension program (maintenance and design work) grew from $986 million in 2016 to $1.1 billion in Trump’s current year budget request. Nuclear weapons analysts expect the Sandia dollar amount to grow again when the president unveils his 2019 spending plan on Monday.
Back to Cold War tack
Nuclear Watch’s Coghlan said the Nuclear Posture Review expands the NNSA’s demand for plutonium pits from previous benchmarks. He said the 2015 Defense Authorization Act called for production of between 50 and 80 plutonium pits per year. The new posture review says the Defense Department now demands “at least 80 pits per year by 2030.” Coghlan said the increase could push at least some production to Savannah River.
“It’s mission creep,” Coghlan said. “The more pits they want to produce the more it tilts to Savannah River for industrial type production. We’re going back to a Cold War configuration.”
Coghlan said he envisions a scenario in which Los Alamos becomes more tilted to “boutique” research and development of plutonium pits with Savannah River performing more large-scale “assembly line” pit production.
Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, another New Mexico-based nuclear watchdog group, stressed that the posture review is a policy suggestion, not an ironclad plan for NNSA or the labs. He noted that lab budgets didn’t always reflect the priorities stated in Obama’s 2010 review. But he said the document raises alarms about Russia and other adversaries and could prod Congress to spend more.
“Unfortunately, the hard power approach that we see in this NPR eliminates better options as it proceeds and creates the enemies it needs to justify high military expenditures,” Mello said. “Fear is used to create more fear – and more appropriations. In that sense, our nuclear missiles are aimed at Congress.”
Stephen Young, an arms control expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, said America’s three nuclear weapons labs – Los Alamos, Sandia and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California – don’t have the resources to take on more work, even if Congress funnels more money to them as the Nuclear Posture Review suggests.
“The labs are already running flat out on the current program and the idea that you’re going to add on more work to that is just not doable,” Young said. “They already doing four simultaneous major warhead programs and they want to add more work to that. It is just not realistic.”