Over the past four years, the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories have been plagued by repeated scandals. These have included the theft of nuclear secrets, alarming lapses in security, mismanagement, and fraud. Despite all this, however, federal budgets for the labs have continued to expand during this same period. Los Alamos’ budget alone increased nearly seven hundred million dollars over the past decade.
But now there is the first sign that at least some on Capitol Hill have seen enough. The House Appropriations Committee has gutted a White House proposal to begin research on a new generation of nuclear warheads. The Committee cut fifty million dollars out of the Energy and Water Budget that had been earmarked for this purpose. Moreover, no effort was made on the House floor to restore the money. One congressional aide said that “There was no support” to restore the funding.
The White House had intended to use the money for research on advanced nuclear weapons concepts. These would have included the so-called “mini-nukes” for tactical applications and warheads capable of striking targets buried deep underground. The White House also wanted the money to accelerate the nation’s ability to resume underground testing. The last U.S. nuclear test took place in 1992. The first Bush administration declared a moratorium on underground testing, which was then extended by the Clinton administration and George W. Bush.
The cuts also hit proposed environmental studies to support manufacturing for plutonium “triggers” for our nuclear warheads. The U.S. has been without such a capability since the late 1980s, when the Rocky Flats facility outside Denver was closed. Combined with the testing moratorium, this step will delay efforts to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal. That means that there have been no new nuclear warhead designs since the 1980s. Those warheads were designed for cold-war targets like Soviet nuclear-missile silos. Those silos still exist, but many defense planners don’t consider Russian strategic nuclear arms to be much of a threat.
Despite official statements to the contrary, many inside the national security bureaucracy believe that nuclear weapons have outlived their usefulness. Many in the U.S. military, for example, argue that our conventional firepower is more than sufficient for any foreseeable military need. But many of our potential adversaries are putting their most valuable targets deep underground. North Korea, for example, is estimated to have up to 15,000 military-industrial facilities buried under layers of rock. Conventional weapons are ineffective against these targets.
Arms controllers, like California Senator Dianne Feinstein, approved the cuts. They argue that the funding would serve only to fuel another nuclear arms race. The labs’ chief advocates on Capitol Hill promised to restore the funding later this summer. Effective implementation of management and security reforms could increase confidence in the labs’ stewardship of the nuclear stockpile. Then the budget allocations would make sense.