Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Feds plan for new era in nuclear deterrence

Under a new federal plan, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory would become the nation's center for testing and developing explosive devices for nuclear weapons.

The proposed expansion at the Livermore site is one of numerous sweeping changes recommended by the agency overseeing the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal.

The plan, released Oct. 24, aims to reconfigure the country's eight national security labs to meet 21st century demands for maintaining a reliable and credible nuclear deterrence with an aging weapons stockpile.

Watchdog groups monitoring activities at the labs, however, say the plan reflects an agenda by the Bush administration, presented in its waning days, to support innovations in nuclear weaponry development, despite repeated congressional rejection of such an initiative.

While stripped of one of its most controversial elements — increased production of the plutonium cores critical to nuclear weapon denotation — the final plan would nonetheless create an infrastructure for more easily ramping up to produce these and other weapons components, said Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CAREs in Livermore. She cited a potential new building at Livermore to bolster its ongoing high explosive research as an example.

"It is actually a provocative revitalization of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex," Kelley said of the plan. "It's an end-run around congressional intent by going ahead and creating Advertisementthe infrastructure for developing new nuclear weapons."

But a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency within the Department of Energy that oversees the stewardship program for the nation's nuclear arsenal, said such charges miss the point of the sweeping new vision for how the network of national security labs operate.

"They're tying together two separate things," said John Broehm.

There's no intent to design new weapons with the plan, he said. It's solely intended to move operations into buildings more easily secured against theft of nuclear material prized by terrorists and rogue nations for bomb-building — plutonium and enriched uranium. Modern buildings will also facilitate development of new technologies for maintaining the existing stockpile of nuclear weapons, Broehm said.

The eight labs' primary mission is running the "Stockpile Stewardship Program," which assesses the safety, security and reliability of the warheads without nuclear testing, and to develop new technologies for extending the life of the aging stockpile. No new nuclear weapons have been built since the early 1990s, Broehm said.

"What this (plan) does is reflect that the nuclear stockpile is going down," he added.

Since 2001, the number of U.S. nuclear warheads has declined by 50 percent, with another 15 percent reduction in the works, according to the nuclear agency.

The new plan, called the "Complex Transformation" and released Oct. 24 in the environmental impact statement, spells out how the National Nuclear Security Administration proposes to consolidate operations at the nuclear weapons labs scattered across the country. Thirty days after its release, the agency can issue one or more decisions for adopting favored plans, although it's unknown when any decisions will be announced.

"We absolutely need to do this," Broehm said. "We're in buildings 50 years old, and it shows."

But Kelley, with Tri-Valley CAREs, said the plan "abandons the very modest consolidations" proposed in 2006 for Livermore lab and instead calls for constructing a new building at the Livermore site to augment an existing high explosives research and development program, or for moving that expanded program into existing buildings at the lab's facility near Tracy, called "Site 300."

"To my shock and disbelief, Livermore was chosen to be the high explosives research and development center for the entire nuclear development complex," Kelley said. "When you're talking about R&D, you're talking about the next generation of nuclear weapons."

Aside from alarm that high explosives R&D portends a potential resurgence of nuclear weapons development, Kelley expressed concerns about the environmental effects of the expanded facility. "It will continue and even increase the pollution I'm faced with," said the Livermore resident.

Lynda Seaver, a spokeswoman for the Livermore lab, responded that the expanded high explosives facility will generate more emissions but still fall within state and federal limits.

Kelley was also disappointed that the 2012 timetable for removing all plutonium and enriched uranium — highly radioactive materials — off the Livermore site wasn't moved up, given the potential threat of a terrorist attack on the facility and the presence of a nearby earthquake fault.

But Broehm said that moving any more quickly could prove hazardous. "I can assure you that's a priority to the administration to get that (material) out," he said. "But it's not like moving out of your apartment. These moves are a highly guarded state secret."

Seaver added that two loads of the radioactive material have already been shipped out of the Livermore lab by a truck convoy.

It's the Bush administration's keen interest in increasing the production of "plutonium pits," the triggers at the heart of nuclear weapons, that particularly alarms Kelley and other watchdog organizations over the future of the nation's nuclear weapons program.

In 2003, the National Nuclear Security Administration recommended establishing a facility for producing 450 plutonium pits. Facing objections, it revised it to no more than 80 per year. But with continued opposition to even that figure, the agency retreated to the existing level of 20 per year in the final plan released Oct. 24. That's the maximum number experts estimate is needed to maintain the existing arsenal.

Regardless of what, if any, decisions the Bush administration issues on the final plan for the national security labs' next chapter, the new U.S. president will have a significant effect on its ultimate implementation. "These are decisions being made by a lame duck administration," noted Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico. "A new administration could change it."

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