Sunday, November 21, 2010

Nuke Enthusiasts Fight New Start Treaty

The newspapers this morning are filled with reports and discussions of matters relating to the New Start Treaty:

The New York Times is running a William J Broad story about the Treaty, and its relation to controversy over upgrading of the US nuclear deterrent, with corresponding costly nuke building programs at the DOE/NNSA's nuke labs, especially LANL and ORNL, but also the Kansas City Plant. In order to entice a few Republican Treaty ratification votes, Pres. Obama is offering more money for nuke program upgrades, but the Republican point man on this issue, Sen. Jon Kyl, still says no.

The NYT runs a Maureen Dowd spoof of Pres. Obama's New Start Treaty political problems.

The NYT also runs a story about Sig Hecker's trip to N Korea, and his "discovery" there of a new facility for uranium enrichment.

The Los Angeles Times contains a more comprehensive story about Hecker's trip to N Korea, pointing out that he traveled with Jack Pritchard, a former US ambassador to S Korea, and a current publicist for S Korean interests. According to the LAT, both Hecker and Pritchard will shortly give a talk about their trip to the Korean Economic Institute, Pritchard's organization. They had both also just finished briefing the Institute for Science and International Security, a group focused on world-wide nuclear proliferation matters.

Hecker, a past director of LANL and a strong proponent of continuing the American nuclear weapons program, was a signatory to a May 2010 letter by 10 former nuke lab directors criticizing the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. The former directors asserted that the NPR restricts the creative freedom of scientists and engineers who work at the nuke labs, thus denying the nation the full benefit of its nuclear weapons designers' expertise, and placing the nation at unnecessary risk of a possible future nuclear attack.

One wonders about the timing of the release of information about Hecker's latest visit to N Korea, and the effect that this information might have on the New Start Treaty ratification process.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fate of New Start Treaty?

Messieurs John Bolton and John Yoo, two former Bush administration stalwarts, reprised their fundamentalist approach to the formulation of US foreign and domestic policy, in a 11-10-10 Op Ed piece for the New York Times.

It is now clear, they said, that "Voters want government brought closer to the vision the framers outlined in the Constitution, and the first test could be the fate of the flawed New Start arms control treaty, which was signed by President Obama and President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia last spring but awaits ratification. The Senate should heed the will of the voters and either reject the treaty or amend it so that it doesn’t weaken our national defense."

They asserted further that: "New Start’s faults are legion. The low limits it would place on nuclear warheads ignore the enormous disparities between American and Russian global responsibilities and the importance of America’s 'nuclear umbrella' in maintaining international security."

They then opined: "To prevent New Start from gravely impairing America’s nuclear capacity, the Senate must .... demand changes to the treaty itself. .... Congress should pass a new law financing the testing and development of new warhead designs before approving New Start."

In support, they offered up a historical precedent: "All this is within the Senate’s powers. When it approved the Jay Treaty in the 1790s, which resolved outstanding disputes with Britain, the Senate consented only on condition that President George Washington delete a specific provision on trade. Washington and Britain agreed to the amendment, and the treaty entered into force."

Hence, we see here what may be the opening sally, from a cabal of nuclear stone-agers, in the about to be renewed struggle to ratify the New Start Treaty (nuclear arms control treaty between the US and Russia) in the US Senate.

A key player in this struggle may be Sen. Jon Kyl of Ariz., whose opposition to the treaty is well-known, although for months he has held out the possibility of a compromise. In particular, Kyl has appeared to pin his eventual "support for the treaty to a boost in funding to modernize the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons", according to the Associated Press yesterday.

Perhaps the Administration hopes to turn Kyl's opposition into eventual support by offering up additional sweeteners; viz., in the form of guarantees of increased funding for the nuclear weapons program, or even by agreeing to proceed with the development of new nuclear weapons designs.

Of course, the Administration's Nuclear Posture Review of this past spring was explicit in its refusal to permit work on any new warhead designs. And, the current heads of the three nuclear weapons laboratories wrote letters in support of the NPR, albeit not without some grumbling.

For example, as reported by David Kramer in Physics Today, issue of July 24, 2010:
Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) director Michael Anastasio told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on 15 July that lab managers have "both the authority and the responsibility" to replace aging weapons components "on a case-by-case basis" if that is judged to be the best approach. While admitting he would prefer having no restrictions put on the labs’ options for extending warhead lifetimes, Anastasio said language in the administration’s April Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) provides "an adequate level of flexibility to carry out our mission.”

Similarly, while expressing reservations, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory director George Miller pronounced the NPR restriction "workable," and said it "would permit his weapons designers to bring forward all the options for consideration."
However, a group of ten former heads of the three nuke labs were moved to denounce important parts of the NPR. In the same Physics Today story we find that:
In a May letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, the 10 former directors said the NPR "imposes unnecessary constraints on our engineers and scientists when it states that 'the United States will give strong preference to options for refurbishment or reuse’ and that the replacement of nuclear components ‘would be undertaken only if critical Stockpile Management Program goals could not otherwise be met, and if specifically authorized by the President and approved by Congress.'”

The former lab directors warned that the "higher bar" set by the NPR for replacement of components will "stifle the creative and imaginative thinking that typifies the excellent
history of progress and development at the national laboratories, and indeed will inhibit the NPR’s goal of honing the specialized skills needed to sustain the current deterrent."
They added that the NPR restrictions will add to the risk that the country has taken on by not testing its nuclear weapons.

In their letter, the former directors also fretted that science, engineering, non-nuclear testing, and other laboratory programs will be starved to pay for cost overruns that have become inevitable during the construction of the facilities needed to clean up the Department of Energy’s cold war weapons production complex. And they warned that the administration’s budget projections for the construction of a multibillion-dollar plutonium research and pit production facility at LANL, and for a new uranium processing facility at Oak Ridge, TN, are inadequate.

“While we are encouraged by your commitments, we are deeply concerned that most of the significant investments promised are not available until the out-years of the plan," the directors wrote. "We are concerned, having received commitments of support before, that Congress and the President will once again promise a great deal today, and then quickly forget about the nuclear weapons enterprise until something breaks.”

Signing the letter were former LANL directors Harold Agnew, Siegfried Hecker, John Browne, Pete Nanos, Robert Kuckuck, and Donald Kerr; former LLNL directors John Nuckolls, John Foster, and Michael May; and former Sandia National Laboratory director C. Paul Robinson.

But Roy Schwitters, a physics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told senators he disagreed with the former directors' statements, arguing that there are enough technical and scientific challenges within the scope of the NPR to provide opportunities for staffs to grow professionally. Schwitters chaired a sub-panel of JASON, the self-perpetuating scientific advisory committee, that last year reviewed the NNSA’s technical plan for extending the life of the stockpile. That review found no evidence that an accumulation of changes incurred from aging or from earlier life extension programs has increased the risk that deployed warheads won’t work as they’re supposed to. It also advised that the lifetimes of the weapons could be extended for decades with no loss in confidence. But Schwitters noted how one life extension program currently underway, the W-76 warhead for Trident missiles, actually employs a combination of refurbishment, reuse, and replacement.
So who's right and who's wrong here? Well, the "experts" seem to be divided along lines, at least partly, of self-interest. By this I mean that:

Out of self-interest, current nuke lab directors would be expected to accede, generally, to the administration's point-of-view. Thus, theirs is an unconvincing endorsement of the administration's position.

On the other hand, although former directors can more freely express themselves, they speak from an experience steeped in the culture of nuclear weapons design, and the interests of nuclear weapons designers. We will return to this point in an moment.

What about the opinions of Prof. Schwitters? Well, as a member of the JASON's, his views may be conditioned by connections both to the nuclear weapons industry and to the military and civilian political establishments, but in unknown proportions. Nevertheless, it would seem to be in the interests of a JASON for his judgment to appear to be unbiased and straightforward. So, after all, his view may be the most credible.

Finally, coming back to the ten former nuke lab directors, it is clear enough to me that their complaints were based upon parochial concerns.

For example, they warned that the NPR will "stifle the creative and imaginative thinking that typifies the excellent history of progress and development at the national laboratories, and indeed will inhibit the NPR’s goal of honing the specialized skills needed to sustain the current deterrent." But, the creative and imaginative thinking to which they referred could really only not be stifled if the goals of the nuclear weapons program themselves were not stifled. Such was the situation in the fifties and early sixties, at the height of the cold war, but no longer!

Moreover, they said that "the NPR restrictions will add to the risk that the country has taken on by not testing its nuclear weapons." Admittedly, such a risk would be difficult to quantify, or even estimate, but they've made no attempt whatsoever to do so. It seems to me that they were just fear-mongering.

Furthermore, as reported in Physics Today "the former directors also fretted that science, engineering, non-nuclear testing, and other laboratory programs will be starved to pay for cost overruns that have become inevitable during the construction of the facilities needed to clean up the Department of Energy’s cold war weapons production complex." But, the cleanup of toxic waste, accumulated from the nuclear weapons program over a period of more than fifty years, and now costing ~$6 billion annually, is necessary for the safety and well-being of all Americans. It does not seem to be a fitting subject for public lamentation by former nuke lab directors.

"And they warned that the administration’s budget projections for the construction of a multibillion-dollar plutonium research and pit production facility at LANL, and for a new uranium processing facility at Oak Ridge, TN, are inadequate." Indeed! The next phase of construction of the CMRR at Los Alamos is projected to cost in excess of $4 billion, with a similar amount slated for Oak Ridge. But, whether or not any of this new construction will actually ever serve the national interest is still an open question. It is clear, however, that the continuation of this project would be in the pecuniary interest of those who are wedded to ongoing nuclear weapons operations at Los Alamos, and Oak Ridge, and to the nuclear weapons industry, generally.


Today, 11-18-10, I'm returning to this blogpost to take note of the latest development. Two days ago Sen. Kyl made clear that he is unwilling to proceed farther down the path toward ratification of the New Start Treaty, until the next Congress is seated, in January.

After all, I suppose, why should the Kyl group accept half a package of Treaty concessions from Pres. Obama now, when they might expect to get a full package by waiting just two more months? And, if they can't get the concessions that they want, then they could instead vote the Treaty down. Scuttling the Treaty would be in accord with the Kyl group notion that arms-control treaties between Russia and the United States act to limit the actions of the US, by far the stronger of the two parties, unnecessarily. Such treaties, they would argue, cannot be in the interest of the US.

It seems that the President must resort to the bully pulpit to explain clearly, and forcefully, to the entire nation, the importance of immediately ratifying the New Start Treaty.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Nukes Very Lucrative

A recent article in the Los Alamos Monitor underlined the fact that New Mexico is currently number five among the 50 states in terms of per capita annual income recieved from the federal government. For every $1 in federal taxes paid by New Mexicans, Washington returns $2 to New Mexico.

Federal dollars come from the sources of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as from the DOE's nuclear weapons activities in NM: viz., the approximately $4 billion spent in fiscal 2010, for work at LANL, SNL, and the WIPP site.

In and around Los Alamos County, local economies are particularly dependent on federal largess. However, in recent years, this largess has been skewing toward the most highly paid Lab managers.

In this context, consider this brief history:

In 2005, after the DOE had decided to end its sixty year-long UC/LANL connection, it issued a Request for Proposal to an eager group of would-be new contractors. Among these, M. Anastasio led a team of entrepreneurs backed by the well-heeled Bechtel in creating a successful bid for the new LANL contract. No neophyte he, for several years prior to that time Anastasio had been the Director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

Although partly selected by DOE for its promise to bring a new efficient management style to LANL, LANS-LLC is still a for-profit management group. It is not surprising then, that in the first year of the new contract at LANL (2006-2007), the new LANL Director took home a salary plus bonus of $1.25 million. This was approximately four times what the previous LANL Director had earned in his last year under the old UC contract.

In fiscal year 2009, LANS-LLC declared a profit from its management of LANL operations of $72 million. Legally, the Limited Liability Copmpany (LLC) is obliged to distribute, each year, all of its profits to its owner-managers.

(As an aside, in a somewhat memorable early 2006 presentation to staff of LANL's X-Division, the then X-Div Head, Paul Hommert, proclaimed that the new contract was being written in such a way as to ensure an increase in the number of managers and, therefore, an increase in the amount of money that many LANL employees could expect to be taking home, in the very near future. Immediately after the start of the new contract, Hommert, who was not a member of the new management team, was moved to a temporary post at UC Headquarters in San Francisco. Today, four years later, the perspicacious Hommert is the new President of Lockheed-Martin's Sandia Corporation, manager of Sandia National Laboratory (SNL), and the new Director of SNL. The previous President of the Sandia Corp. and SNL Director T. Hunter took home ~$1.75 million annually.)

In 2007, a similar process ensued at LLNL. The then LLNL Director, George Miller, led a team of manager entrepreneurs, again backed by Bechtel, calling themselves Lawrence Livermore National Security-LLC, who successfully bid for the new LLNL contract. On October 1, 2007, Miller became the new LLNL Director, under the new LLNS-LLC contract. Presumably, he too enjoyed a greatly increased pay package.

At about the same time, a team of nuclear weapons enthusiasts led by Stephen Younger, backed by Northrop-Grumman, and calling themselves National Security Technologies LLC, succeeded in winning a new contract from DOE for management of the Nevada Test Site (NTS). Younger had earlier been an Associate Laboratory Director at LANL, and was a past Director of the DOD's Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

Thus, the nuclear weapons industry became much more remunerative for its managers, especially its senior managers. However, even some non-management personnel obtained substantial benefits. For example, when the contract changed at LANL from UC to LANS-LLC, in June 0f 2006, DOE gave all LANL employees the opportunity to retire as UC/LANL staff while continuing as new full-time LANS-LLC/LANL employees. Senior staff could draw full UC/LANL pensions, in some cases amounting to nearly 100% of their previous LANL salary, while continuing to collect their regular full-time LANS-LLC/LANL salaries. This was double-dipping with a vengeance.