The Year’s End Brings Real Disarmament That You Can Touch and Feel

“In crisis lies opportunity” is more than just a cliché (and we’re not just talking about Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine.) For instance, what could be a better time than the recess-depression in which we’re mired to rethink the whole concept of a growth economy, which has become unsustainable in the face of climate change and dwindling resources? At the very least, it’s a chance to trim our defense budget. In fact, it might not be foremost in the minds of most Americans, or even of much consolation, but cuts to our nuclear-weapons program constitute a silver lining to our economic crisis.

If you’ll recall, earlier this year, the New START treaty was held hostage by Senate Republicans under the direction of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ). By way of ransoming it, the Obama administration forked over a proposal to spend $88 billion during the next decade on nuclear-weapon modernization. (As if to show the futility of that approach, while it was ultimately passed, Kyl still didn’t vote in favor of New START.) That figure represents a 20 percent increase above funding levels proposed during the Bush administration.

Equally as sad, as Hans Kristensen wrote at the Federation of American Scientists’ Strategic Security Blog:

… the treaty does not require destruction of a single nuclear warhead and actually permits the United States and Russia to deploy almost the same number of strategic warheads that were permitted by the 2002 Moscow Treaty [thanks, in part, to a] new counting rule that attributes one weapon to each bomber rather than the actual number of weapons assigned to them. [Even stranger, this] “fake” counting rule frees up a large pool of warhead spaces under the treaty limit that enable each country to deploy many more warheads than would otherwise be the case.

Indeed, the New START Treaty is not so much a nuclear reductions treaty as it is a verification and confidence building treaty.

Confidence building is nice and all. But it’s been 62 years since both the United States and the former Soviet Union (and then Russia) have possessed nuclear weapons, 25 years since the pivotal Reykjavík nuclear summit, and 20 years since the end of the Cold War. We’re still just trying to build confidence?

Meanwhile, what does disarmament look like when it’s not just pecking at the inside of its egg struggling to emerge? Regular readers of Focal Points know that we track the progress of the Los Alamos Study Group, a disarmament organization that monitors the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory (the heart of the Manhattan Project during World War II) and is today managed by a Bechtel-led consortium for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

In recent years, the mission of the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) has been to halt the progress of a Soviet-era-sounding project called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility (CMRR), intended, in the words of the Los Alamos National Laboratory itself, to perform “analytical chemistry, materials characterization, and metallurgy research and development,” for the production of nuclear pits.

Upon first hearing the phrase, a nuclear pit might sound like a dump for nuclear waste and old warheads. But, as in the pit of a fruit, it’s an origin of life — where the chain reaction occurs in a nuclear warhead. You can be forgiven if you’re surprised that, in light of President Obama’s renowned Prague disarmament speech and New START, however watered down, we’re still creating these obscure objects of destruction. Especially considering that 14,000 pits have been recovered from warheads that have been retired.

Physicist and nuclear policy authority Frank von Hippel recently testified in a lawsuit that the LASG filed against the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The need for large-scale pit production has vanished. In 2003, the [NNSA] was arguing that the [United States] needed the capability to produce 125 to 450 pits per year by 2020 to replace the pits in the US weapon stockpile that would be 30 to 40 years old by then. . . .But, in 2006, we learned that US pits were so well made that, according to a Congressionally-mandated review of … pit aging, “Most primary types have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years.”

Of course, that’s as much bad news — these infernal engines will be around for another century unless they’re dismantled — as good news. Meanwhile, the CMRR project is now expected to cost between $4 and $6 billion. In order to halt or at least stall it, the LASG filed a case against the NNSA seeking a new Environmental Impact Statement (as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act) to address, among other things, seismic concerns about the project. While that case was dismissed, the LASG is not only appealing it, but filing a second lawsuit toward the same end. In the latest LASG newsletter, Executive Director Greg Mello writes (emphasis added):

On December 15, House and Senate conferees issued their “megabus” appropriations bill for fiscal year (FY) 2012. [Passed in the Senate and House, though 86 Republicans defied Republican leadership and voted against it. -- RW] … the bill appropriates only 63% of the requested funds for the [CMRR], slashing $100 million (M) from the $270 M proposed spending level in the project. … CMRR and [a project in proximity to it] were the only NNSA Weapons Activities construction projects cut. … The proposed CMRR cut is 90% of the total proposed cut in new NNSA construction. NNSA’s other proposed massive project, the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF), slated to be built at the Y-12 Nuclear Security Site in Tennessee, was not cut at all.

We have no wish to slight the forces arrayed against the Oak Ridge, Tennessee project. But we can’t help but conclude that, along with current economic climate, the Los Alamos Study Group made the difference in slowing progress of the CMRR.

As Mello writes, the funding cut “can be fairly described as one of the few concrete policy accomplishments of the entire arms control and disarmament community in the United States over the past couple of years.” Never mind your garden-party treaties that are guaranteed not to offend — when the construction of a facility designated for the manufacture of nuclear-weapons components is blocked, that’s disarmament you can taste and feel.