Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Defense Chief Calls for More Spending on Labs
By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
The Obama administration's top defense official says spending at U.S. nuclear weapons labs should be increased, and that newly designed nuclear warheads "probably" will be needed.
The comments from Defense Secretary Robert Gates are the most detailed public clues about the contents of the long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review, which officials say will provide the spending road map for Los Alamos and Sandia labs.
"It is important for us to continue to make investments, and I think larger investments, in modernizing our nuclear infrastructure, the labs and so on," Gates said last week during a question-and-answer session following a talk at the annual meeting of the Air Force Association, according to a transcript published by the Pentagon.
The investments will be needed, Gates said, to support refurbishment of aging nuclear weapons. But he also left open the possibility that refurbishment may not be enough, saying that "in one or two cases probably new designs" will be needed to meet safety and reliability goals for the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
The Nuclear Posture Review's goal is to lay out central policies regarding the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security. Officials say once that foundation has been established, decisions can be made about things like lab budgets.
Gates' comments, which have been circulated in the arms control and national security communities since they were released by the Pentagon, shed some light on two key questions facing the U.S. nuclear weapons complex but provided no clear answers:
â– Will the Obama administration back the spending increases needed to pay for major new buildings at Los Alamos and elsewhere that nuclear weapons program managers say they need?
â– Will refurbishment of existing nuclear bombs and warheads be sufficient, or will the Nuclear Posture Review call for some sort of new weapon design to replace Cold War models?
On the first question, nuclear weapons program officials have been pushing for a new building complex at Los Alamos to handle plutonium and a similar new building in Tennessee to handle uranium, the two main materials in nuclear warheads.
Each building is likely to come with a price tag in excess of $1 billion.
Gates' comments and other signs coming out of Washington suggest the administration will try to go ahead with both, said Stephen Young, a nuclear weapons analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.
The issue now, Young said, appears to be how big to make the buildings, rather than whether to build them.
On the question of designing new weapons as opposed to continuing to refurbish old ones, Young noted an apparent contradiction between Gates' comments and remarks earlier this month made by Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
Tauscher told Foreign Policy magazine that a recently killed proposal to design a new Reliable Replacement Warhead would not be resurrected by the Obama administration.
"I think there are a lot of people that still hope for the return of RRW and they are going to be sadly disappointed," Tauscher told the magazine's The Cable blog.
Young, who objects to both new nuclear buildings and designing new nuclear weapons, said the difference between Tauscher's and Gates' comments is evidence of the give-and-take still under way within the administration.
"They have not yet decided what they're going to say," Young said.