Cost and Goals at Treaty Debate Center of Arms
At stake in the stalled negotiations between the White House and Senate Republicans is not only how much money to spend on the project but, more philosophically, what purpose should be served by building new complexes that can pump out more nuclear arms than ever.
In seeking Senate support for the so-called New Start treaty with Russia, the White House agreed to spend $85 billion over the next decade upgrading the nuclear weapons system, only to find itself stymied by resistance from unsatisfied Republicans.
The deal-making puts President Obama in the paradoxical position of investing vast sums in nuclear weapons even as he promises to put the world on a path to eliminating them.
Even if the project goes forward with that much money, that may not be the end of it. Experts in nuclear weapons agree that the job of building a set of giant factories that can make warheads for the nation’s arsenal would take at least 20 years and countless more billions than are currently budgeted.
“These individual projects have a long history of taking longer and costing more than the original estimates,” said Robert Alvarez, who from 1993 to 1999 was a policy adviser to the secretary of energy, who runs the nation’s nuclear complex.
The main projects are in
Over all, the Obama administration would like to be able to produce up to 80 warheads a year — far more than are needed to replace the warheads destroyed annually by testing, but far fewer than the 125 or more warheads a year that the Bush administration had envisioned.
Nuclear experts say that without the refurbishment program, the nation’s arsenal could slowly shrink as warheads fail or are used up in destructive testing.
“This is a generational shift,” said Hans M. Kristensen, a nuclear expert at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in
But arms controllers say it is largely unnecessary to rebuild the nation’s atomic complex, especially for a president who has pledged himself to a world free of nuclear arms and has set the negotiation of a new arms treaty with
Whether or not the New Start treaty passes, it seems likely that some modernization of the nuclear weapons complex will move forward. Whatever its budget, the Energy Department wants the capability to make replacement warheads and keep its stockpile up to date.
If the clash over rebuilding the nation’s nuclear arms complex has an epicenter, it lies in
There, in the Jemez Mountains, amid the tall pines and deep canyons of the Los Alamos laboratory, work has begun on a weapons site that, when finished, will rival in size the Capitol in Washington, according to Nuclear Watch, a private group in Santa Fe, N.M.
The jittery foundations of the project and the safeguards meant to deal with earthquakes help explain its soaring costs. Jay Coghlan, the director of Nuclear Watch, said that the project at
“It climbs ever upward,” Mr. Coghlan said in an interview, of the estimated cost. “Nobody knows just how high it’s going to go.” And this project is just one of the planned refurbishments for
A main rationale for the work lies in the difficulty of knowing — in the absence of explosive testing, which the
Since the cold war, the federal government has spent many billions of dollars to give the nation’s bomb makers complex tools for assessing warhead reliability. A rigorous test involves the disassembly and destructive testing of a weapon’s constituent parts.
Mr. Kristensen said that, each year, the government now does such examinations to the point of destroying about seven warheads — one for each of seven weapon types. Replacing them would require seven new arms. But the Obama plan envisions a far greater rate of production.
Arms controllers say that the excess capacity is unneeded and that refurbishment of the existing complex would suffice.
“There’s no question they could maintain the stockpile at a very high standard with the existing facilities,” said Christopher E. Paine, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private group in
Ground for the first of two buildings was broken in 2006, and it now stands complete. The other is to be finished in 2022.
The site lies roughly a mile from a fault line, and controversy swirls over the seismic risks and safeguards for the second building, which is to hold atomic fuel.
On Oct. 1, the Energy Department announced that it would prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement that would focus on the facility’s construction and operation.
The notice said new information from geotechnical studies had resulted in updated plans “for seismic safety.” The changes, it said, include more structural steel, more concrete, and a deeper foundation that will require more excavation.
Officials say the arms complex should be built at
“We’re looking at alternatives,” said Toni Chiri, a spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the Energy Department. “Our preferred option is to build where we had planned to.”
The bigger question is whether all the pieces of the giant project will move forward given the long timeline, the astronomical bill and the political maneuvering over the treaty’s approval.
“We are now at a crossroads,” Michael R. Anastasio, the director of
Still, Mr. Anastasio expressed concern over whether the nation had the wherewithal for revamping the complex and sustaining “an appropriate budget over the several decades for which it will be required.”
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