Nuclear Weapons

Key Senate Vote on the Reliable Replacement Warhead Coming Up

06.15.07 | 4 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

On 6 June, the House Appropriations Committee eliminated funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead [RRW] requested by the administration. [In an earlier blog entry, I discuss why the Reliable Replacement Warhead is a misnomer.] The report language is quite damning. I believe that the nuclear policy of the United States since the end of the Cold War has been, to put it charitably, absent-minded, programs have been sustained more by momentum than careful analysis. The House report recognizes that, almost two decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States does not have a plausible nuclear strategy and essentially puts a freeze on long-term spending until we develop one.

The report states: “The Committee believes it is premature to proceed with further development of the RRW [Reliable Replacement Warhead] or a significant nuclear complex modernization plan, until a three-part planning sequence is completed, including: (1) a comprehensive nuclear defense strategy, based on current and projected global threats; (2) clearly defined military requirements for the size and composition of the nuclear stockpile derived from a comprehensive nuclear defense strategy; and (3) alignment of these military requirements to the existing and estimated future needs and capabilities of NNSA’s [National Nuclear Security Agency] weapons complex.”

In other words, the United States is not going to have a huge nuclear arsenal in the future just because it had had one in the past. There is some thinking that needs to be done.

Support for elimination of the funding was bipartisan and there was little dissent on the committee, so getting the money reinstated on the floor of the House is unlikely.

Not that the New Mexico delegation isn’t going to try. Heather Wilson—who represents the First District, which includes Albuquerque, hence Sandia National Laboratory—and Steve Pearce, representing the huge Second District, which includes much of the area surrounding Albuquerque, issued a joint letter to the Chairman and Ranking Minority Member of the Appropriations Committee. The press release publicizing the letter includes this statement: “Not only would the proposed cuts clearly cause substantial job losses in New Mexico at both Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, but they would have significant national security implications.” The “not only…but” construction makes it clear: the first concern here is that people might need to find new jobs. (Not that they should have much trouble because, as the letter states, they are “some of our nation’s premier scientists and engineers” so presumably they are easily employable.) The nation can have, and should have, an honest debate about whether, and how many, nuclear weapons it needs but to argue that we should continue to design and build nuclear bombs that are capable of destroying whole civilizations in order to preserve a jobs program for scientists and engineers is truly, without exaggeration, insane.

Wilson and Pearce go on to argue that cuts in funding for the national labs will increase the need for nuclear testing, saying “If this bill becomes law, Los Alamos will not have the tools needed to assess and certify 80 percent of America’s nuclear stockpile without returning to nuclear testing.” Testing was used to confirm that new designs worked but has never been used in any statistically meaningful way to assure the reliability of deployed nuclear weapons. Plus, testing is expensive. The implication of the letter is that testing is the cheapest way to maintain our confidence in the stockpile and we have decided, because of a combination of political concessions, to sacrifice the simple, direct, cheap approach of testing and adopt a second best approach of stockpile stewardship. This is not true. Given the cost of testing, there will be no point where it is best to spend your next dollar (actually a few tens of millions of dollars) on a test rather than on more inspections, better test equipment, new computer simulations, or any of several tools available to those monitoring nuclear weapons. With unlimited budgets, some might continue stockpile stewardship and test but, if forced to choose, weapon monitors would rather have our current monitoring program rather than a testing program. (We elaborate a bit on this in a recent FAS Occasional Paper, The Stockpile Stewardship Program: Fifteen Years On; see pp 6-7.)

On the Senate side, due to vote soon, New Mexico’s senior senator, Pete Domenici, also issued a press release and again the first issue is jobs. The release states that “The House bill is stunningly punitive in its treatment of Los Alamos. This bill would be devastating for Los Alamos, surrounding communities and New Mexico overall.” The overall cut in the nuclear weapon’s program is only 6% compared to last year; “punitive” refers to Los Alamos’s getting less money while Livermore gets an increase. These are the nation’s nuclear bombs we are talking about. The Senator’s recourse to a jobs program argument undermines his authority to speak about nuclear weapons. Is it too much to ask that we, as a nation, decide what nuclear policy is best for the continuing survival of the human race and then just let a few jobs changes fall where they may?

The Senate Appropriations Committee will make its funding decision in the next week or two. I hope they support the House position and zero out money for the RRW.