Nuclear meltdown

Posted: Jan 07, 2003 12:00 AM
Ever since North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong-Il, broke bad -- acknowledging cheating on his promises to forego nuclear weapons and then doing so openly and in earnest -- government officials and others have been speculating about how fast the "Dear Leader" will be able to build up his stockpile. If he has two weapons now, will he have five or ten by this time next year? Some think Kim might be able to build as many as fifty over the next few years. Lost in the discussion to date is a dirty little secret: Whatever the number Pyongyang's weaponeers can churn out in the months ahead, it will almost certainly be larger than the number of nuclear weapons the United States could build during a similar period. The truth is that the U.S. cannot produce any new weapons at the moment, having shut down some years ago its only facility for manufacturing the heart of such weapons: plutonium "pits." Now, the argument will be made that the United States has thousands of nuclear weapons and does not need to produce additional ones just because North Korea does. Still, it is an extraordinary thing that the world's sole superpower lacks the capability to augment its arsenal -- a capability that not only North Korea but every one of the other declared nuclear powers (Britain, France, Russia, China, India and Pakistan) has maintained. This situation may prove to be far more than a bizarre anomaly, however. What if it turns out that the weapons currently in the U.S. inventory (most of which were designed twenty or thirty years ago with a very different strategic environment in mind) are not only obsolescent, but are of very limited or no utility -- and, therefore, incredible as deterrents -- in the present environment? For example, is it acceptable that no weapon in the stockpile today can reliably hold at risk the sorts of deeply buried and assiduously hardened command centers and weapons bunkers in which Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-Il have invested heavily? Worse yet, America's present inability to manufacture new nuclear weapons in any quantity is but a symptom of a far larger problem: the dismal state of the industrial and technological infrastructure that the Department of Energy is charged with maintaining to support the U.S. deterrent. This state of affairs is the predictable, and intended, product of a decade of neglect -- or worse -- of this nuclear weapons complex. The House Armed Services Committee once described the combination of policies and spending aimed during this period at hobbling, undermining and ultimately dismantling the complex as "erosion by design." Thanks largely to this legacy, we not only lack the ability to replace or modernize the nuclear weapons currently in the U.S. stockpile. There is also growing uncertainty about their safety and reliability. Today, we cannot address those uncertainties in the only proven and most cost-effective manner, since we are unable at the moment to conduct underground nuclear tests. None of the other, as-yet-unvalidated and much-more-expensive technologies that have been held out as substitutes for testing will be available for years to come; some may never pan out technically or be funded to fruition. If anything, the problems may be even more acute on the personnel side of the complex. Last week's resignations by the top two officials of the Los Alamos National Laboratory is but the latest evidence of the difficulties confronting the national labs. Their people, who are absolutely critical to the technical excellence and operation of the Nation's nuclear weapons infrastructure, have for much of the past ten years been poorly led, demoralized and, in many cases, profoundly alienated by their treatment from higher-ups in Washington. As a result, there has been an acute brain-drain from the labs. This is particularly true among the small cadre of physicists who have actually had first-hand experience with the extremely esoteric business of designing, testing and maintaining the nuclear weapons in our stockpile today -- arguably, the most complex pieces of equipment ever produced by man. The good news is that President Bush and his national security team have brought the sort of fresh and more responsible perspective to these matters that has been so sorely needed. Their 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) for the first time gave equal importance to the nuclear stockpile and the infrastructure necessary to sustain it. The NPR explicitly recognized that our aging arsenal may be inadequate to today's and tomorrow's deterrent requirements. It underscored the need to have in place the technological and industrial capacity by which fixes could be implemented. And the NPR signaled, at least implicitly, that underground testing will have to be resumed in order both to assure the safety and reliability of the present inventory and to upgrade and modernize that arsenal. It is not enough, of course, simply to recognize the problem. Real leadership must be brought to bear to take corrective action. An opportunity to provide such leadership now looms, thanks to the reassignment of Gen. John Gordon, who previously ran the Nuclear National Security Administration, the openings at Los Alamos and the possibility of competing the contract to run that laboratory -- a job that has, from the lab's founding, been the exclusive responsibility of the University of California. In particular, a key test will be the Administration's replacement for Gen. Gordon. Clearly needed is a leader with: a demonstrated ability to manage large, technically sophisticated government organizations and industrial facilities; first-hand familiarity with the weapons complex yet, ideally, independence from it; and an established commitment to the President's ambitious agenda of ensuring the long-term viability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. With the help of such an individual, Mr. Bush and Energy Secretary Spence Abraham have a chance to halt and reverse the meltdown of America's nuclear weapons infrastructure, and the self-inflicted "erosion by design" that is all-the-more ill-advised in light of proliferation in North Korea and elsewhere.