It was with some anticipation that I approached Dana Priest’s series in the Washington Post on nuclear-weapons modernization. After all, she’d won a Pulitzer prize and George Polk award for her reporting on CIA detention sites overseas and, along with William Arkin, she’d written Top Secret America, a three-part series on how immense the U.S. intelligence and classified activity system had become.
With the nuclear-weapons modernization articles, I was expecting an examination of the need for modernization and of nuclear weapons in general. Instead, Ms. Priest began the first article, Aging U.S. nuclear arsenal slated for costly and long-delayed modernization, by sounding an alarm about what she perceives as “the decrepit, neglected state of the aging nuclear weapons complex.” She writes that despite this ostensible state of affairs
… officials have repeatedly put off sinking huge sums into projects that receive little public recognition, driving up the costs even further.
Now, as the nation struggles to emerge from the worst recession of the postwar era and Congress faces an end-of-year deadline to avoid $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts to the federal budget over 10 years, the Obama administration is overseeing the gargantuan task of modernizing the nuclear arsenal to keep it safe and reliable.
… Federal officials and many outside analysts are nonetheless convinced that, after years of delay, the government must invest huge sums if it is to maintain the air, sea and land nuclear triad on which the country has relied since the start of the Cold War. Failing to act before the end of next year, they say, is likely to mean that there won’t be enough time to design and build the new systems that would be required if the old arsenal is no longer safe or reliable.
In a lengthy press release, Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, not only pointed out inaccuracies in Ms. Priest’s work, but questioned its basic assumptions. He writes:
Contrary to the impression given by this article, there is nothing about the U.S. nuclear deterrent that is about to “wear out.” The warheads and bombs in particular – the focus of this article – do not “wear out” because they undergo periodic maintenance and upgrade programs of varying intrusiveness, roughly on an as-needed basis.
The one component of the U.S. nuclear arsenal that will “wear out,” and which will do so more or less on a succession of dates certain, are nuclear submarines.
The most intrusive warhead and bomb modifications are called “life extension programs” (LEPs), which are akin to a “complete factory overhaul.” After each LEP, the warhead or bomb in question is generally expected to last another 30 years before another LEP is needed, although there may be exceptions.
As for the “the decrepit, neglected state of the aging nuclear weapons complex”:
This is grossly inaccurate and misleading. Some buildings are new, replacing others that have been torn down. Most buildings have been properly maintained and are quite serviceable as they are. A few are being intentionally neglected (“run to failure”), sometimes because replacements are planned and sometimes because of bad decisions by senior management. Across the complex, hundreds of buildings are simply not needed, or are grossly oversized for their current missions, or have been adapted for new uses – which may or may not be important. Some buildings have been the subject of major upgrades already.
Then Mello quotes the Post:
An extended stoppage would disrupt the weapons safety work and could force the closing of domestic and foreign civilian reactors that rely on low-enriched uranium from the facility, according to the NNSA.
And responds (emphasis added):
No “weapons safety work” would be interrupted. The LEP program would be interrupted, but this should not be characterized as “weapons safety work.” Nuclear weapons almost always fail toward safety, not danger. There are no weapon safety problems which the LEP program is remedying.
Finally, he addresses a spurious charge by Ms. Priest, who wrote:
For their part, many anti-nuclear activists favor disarmament by atrophy, which would mean not repairing or extending the life span of the current arsenal.
This is absurd. We know of no anti-nuclear activists who favor disarmament by atrophy. In our own case (the Los Alamos Study Group), we believe we offer practical management alternatives which will maintain the arsenal better than NNSA’s program, which is failing, while at the same time our proposals position the country better for disarmament. We believe sound management and good government facilitate disarmament. Virtually all parties agree that NNSA is currently choosing and managing its projects poorly.
In other words, no urgent need to throw vast amounts of money at the U.S. nuclear-weapons industrial complex exists. One can only guess at Ms. Priest’s agenda for trying to scare up the funds. In the end, Mello’s critique obviates the need to even read Dana Priest’s series. With the Washington Post, it seldom pays to get one’s hopes up.