The Bush administration on Wednesday unveiled a blueprint for rebuilding the United States’ decrepit nuclear weapons complex, including restoration of a large-scale bomb manufacturing capacity.
The plan calls for the most sweeping realignment and modernization of the nation’s massive system of laboratories and factories for nuclear bombs since the end of the Cold War.
Until now, the nation has depended on carefully maintaining aging bombs produced during the Cold War arms race, some several decades old. The administration, however, wants the capability to turn out 125 new nuclear bombs per year by 2022, as the Pentagon retires older bombs that it claims will no longer be reliable or safe.
Under the plan, all of the nation’s plutonium would be consolidated into a single facility that could be more effectively and cheaply defended against possible terrorist attacks. The plan would remove the plutonium now kept at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory by 2014, though transfers of the material could start sooner. In recent years, concern has sharply grown that Livermore, surrounded by residential neighborhoods, could not repel a terrorist attack.
But the administration blueprint is facing sharp criticism, both from those who say it does not move fast enough to consolidate plutonium stores and from those who say restarting bomb production would encourage aspiring nuclear powers across the globe to develop weapons.
The plan was outlined to Congress on Wednesday by Thomas D’Agostino, head of nuclear weapons programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration, a part of the Energy Department. While the weapons proposal would restore the capacity to make new bombs, D’Agostino said it is part of a larger effort to accelerate the dismantling of aging bombs left from the Cold War.
D’Agostino acknowledged in an interview that the administration is walking a fine line by modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons program while assuring other nations that it is not seeking a new arms race. The credibility of the argument rests on the U.S. intent to sharply reduce its overall inventory of weapons.
The administration is also moving quickly ahead with a new nuclear bomb program known as the “reliable replacement warhead,” which began last year. Originally described as an effort to update existing weapons and make them inherently more reliable, it has been broadened and now includes the potential for new bomb designs. Weapons labs currently are engaged in a design competition.
The United States built its last nuclear weapon in 1989 and last tested a weapon underground in 1992. Since the Cold War, the United States has depended on massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons to deter attacks. By contrast, it would now increasingly rely on the capability to build future bombs for deterrence, D’Agostino said.
The blueprint calls for a modern complex to design a new nuclear bomb and have it ready in less than four years, allowing the nation to respond to changing military requirements. Such proposals in the past, such as for a nuclear bomb to attack underground bunkers, provoked concern that they undermine U.S. policy to stop nuclear proliferation.
The impetus for the plan is a growing recognition that efforts to maintain older nuclear bombs and keep up a large nuclear weapons industrial complex are technically and financially unsustainable.