Saturday, March 04, 2006

U.S. Plans to Modernize Nuclear Arsenal

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 4, 2006; Page A02

The Bush administration is developing plans to design and deploy refurbished or replacement warheads for the nuclear stockpile, and by 2030 to modernize the production complex so that, if required, it could produce new generations of weapons with different or modified capabilities.

Referring to goals established two years ago, Ambassador Linton F. Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), told the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces Wednesday that "we will revitalize our weapons design community to meet the challenge of being able to adapt an existing weapon within 18 months, and design, develop and begin production of a new design within three to four years of a decision to enter engineering development."


A small facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory has been established to build pits, but its capacity will be 30 to 40 pits a year beginning in 2012, which Brooks described as "insufficient to meet our assessed long-term pit production needs" created by the RRW warheads.


Full Story

Some observations on Linton Brooks' comments:

"Although there is some updating and modernizing of the present
complex, "full infrastructure changes . . . will take a couple
of decades," Brooks said. (Washington Post)

Most of us will be long gone by the time Brooks' big vision
has any chance of being implemented. The "modernizing of the
present complex" likely means an emphasis towards production
work at LANL. It's coming to LANL whether we like it or not.

The "safe" jobs at LANL over the next decade will be in the
production areas, and not in science and research.

"Once we demonstrate we can produce warheads on a time scale in
which geopolitical threats could emerge, we would no longer need
to retain extra warheads to hedge against unexpected geopolitical
changes." -- Linton Brooks (Washington Post)

Say, what? Has Brooks been hitting the crack pipe? This is
utter hogwash. Nukes are not the type of weapon that should
be produced in a "just-in-time" factory! We're not building
Toyota Camrys for middle-class US consumers. Brooks is trying
hard to sell a fantasy vision with this quote, and I doubt
Congress will buy into it. Besides, with a "nukes-on-demand"
stockpile, our enemies could easily wipe out our strategic
nuclear complex in a single afternoon. This is complete

Brooks told the subcommittee that he believes more funds will be
needed to prepare for a new multi billion dollar facility to
produce "pits," plutonium triggers for thermonuclear weapons.
There is controversy over how reliable the plutonium pits are as
they age because of radioactive decay. Brooks told the panel
the current belief is they are reliable for 45 to 60 years, but
uncertainties have developed. (Washington Post)

I can see the gears turning in the heads of our Congressman on
this quote: "Hmmmm, 60 years, you say? Well, there's no hurry.
We'll come back and revisit this report in another decade or two."

This country won't be on the other side of the coming Entitlement
Boom until another 20 years have past. Entitlement funding is
tightly coupled to re-election concerns, and will occupy the
minds of Congress over the next two decades. I don't even see
DOD pushing for funding splurges on the nuclear weapons complex
these days. DOD would rather have the money for conventional
needs. If DOD isn't out there pleading to Congress for a shiney,
new weapons complex, then what chance is there, really, for a big
ramp-up of weapons work based on RRW? None, I suspect.

The latest Quadrennial Defense Review, released in February, downplays nuclear weapons. While it gives tacit support to maintaining a viable nuclear deterrent, it is very soft on supporting modernization of the complex. It says that one of the most important missions of the DoD is to downplay the relevance of WMD as implements of national policy. I wonder if this means for the US, too?

It seems to me, as a somewhat insider, that the nuclear weapons profession is a dead end.
Certainly designing nuclear weapons as a career is coming to an end beause folks who hire on after May 31 and get dumped into the sewer called TCP2 will not enter the field of weapons design. They will enter fields where they can quickly gain expertise, publish as much as possible, and then use that expertise to move on to greener pastures. There will be very few awards for anyone with more than 5 years of experience as there is today.

Of course in 10 years most of the architects of privatization will be dead, leaving their children and grandchildren to suffer at the hands of those countries that continue to design and develop nuclear weapons.
The TCP2 benefits package is only one part of the equation to
the future of scientific work at LANL.

My guess is, DOE wants the LANL scientific staff to stay around just
a little bit longer, but the real future for LANL has already been
planned. It mostly involves production work. Once LANS takes over,
our overhead rates and "stealth" taxes may become so high that only
nuclear production work can be economically justified. Watch closely
how LANS handles their new costs. It could become your guidepost as
to the future of science at LANL.

A LANL scientist making around $120 K per year currently costs a
project close to $370 K per year when burden rates and project taxes
are added. If you see LANS dump increasing costs onto the heads of
each FTE and on to projects (which seem highly likely), then the
future at LANL will become more insecure. Project funds can only
be stretched so far, no matter how important the scientific work.

We should know the status of future FTE costs and project taxations
in short order. Even if you don't work to secure your own funding
at LANL, higher FTE costs and bigger project taxations will effect
your future job security. You might want to pay attention to this.
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