Saturday, February 18, 2012

The View From Los Alamos

The Obama Administration’s Federal Budget for FY 2013 was made public recently, with some fanfare ( ). Suggested total federal spending will be $3.8 trillion; of this amount,  $27.2 billion (0.72%) has been assigned to the Department of Energy (DOE) and of this, $11.5 billion will be expended by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA.) Quoting from the Budget:

“The Administration proposes $7.6 billion for Weapons Activities, an increase of $363 million or 5% above the FY 2012 enacted level, to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent as described in the Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) of 2010. This Budget meets the goals of the NPR by continuing nuclear weapon life extension programs— such as upgrades to the W76 and B61 nuclear weapons—by improving and replacing aging facilities —such as increasing investments in funding for the Uranium Processing Facility [at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)]—and by sustaining the existing stockpile through underlying science, surveillance, and other support programs. However, to meet the NPR goals, but still stay within the discretionary spending caps,  NNSA and Department of Defense (DOD) are reducing and stretching out the schedule of several weapons life extension programs and are restructuring plans for maintaining plutonium capabilities [at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)]. As a result, the 2013 Budget provides $372 million less for Weapons Activities than the Administration projected in last year’s request and reported to the Congress in the Section 1251 Report on nuclear weapons plans.”

In keeping with what seem to be the Obama Administration’s views on the U. S. nuclear weapons industry, NNSA’s new budget also:

1) “Positions the Environmental Management program to meet its legally enforceable cleanup commitments at sites around the country.”

2) “Continues investments to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear weapons stockpile in support of the planned decrease in deployed U. S. and Russian weapons under the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.”

3) “Strengthens national security through funding for securing, disposing of, and detecting [of] nuclear and radiological material worldwide.”

Each of these three focus areas have important implications for ongoing programs at LANL, as well as for other U. S. nuclear weapons sites.

1) Overall, the EM program will take a small hit, with spending in FY 2013 of $5.650 billion, reduced from $5.711 billion in FY 2012, and below its FY 2011 level of $5.665 billion. However, at LANL, reductions are projected to be more extreme: this has been the subject of much recent agonizing among EM staff and managers at LANL. See my previous blogposts on this subject. Apparently, some “legally enforceable cleanup commitments” are seen as being more demanding than others; e.g., especially those at ORNL and at Hanford, Washington. Moreover, a business oriented New Mexico Governor, expressing  congenial attitudes toward the nuclear weapons industry in New Mexico, has agreed to delays in elements of the ongoing cleanup at LANL, even though the cleanup schedule (embodied in the 2005 Consent Order Decree) was legally binding on NNSA; the Governor chooses to not enforce parts of that Order.

As described in the Budget:

“The Budget includes $5.65 billion to ensure our Nation’s legacy of nuclear wastes from the production of weapons during the Cold War are processed, secured, and safely disposed of in a timely manner. The Environmental Management program continues to clean up waste and contamination, focusing on its legally enforceable regulatory commitments [but, with less emphasis at LANL]. The program’s cleanup actions include removing radioactive wastes from underground storage tanks, decontaminating and decommissioning old production facilities, and installing groundwater monitoring wells primarily at sites in Washington, South Carolina, Idaho, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and New Mexico.” [Nevertheless, the new Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department says that, by agreement with NNSA/LANS, no more regional monitoring wells will be drilled into the regional aquifer below LANL.]

2) Start-up of the CMRR-NF construction project at LANL (> $5 billion) has been delayed for five years. This enables NNSA to defer annual spending of ~$0.5 billion. However, NNSA must now reassign some plutonium related work to sites outside of LANL; this may involve necessary (perhaps, less costly) development of those other sites, and cancellation of the entire CMRR-NF project at LANL has now emerged as a distinct possibility. In the past, NNSA has threatened to remove all plutonium work from LANL if they were to ever meet with any check to their ambitious plans.

3) The “securing, disposing of, and detecting [of] nuclear and radiological material worldwide” is an important part of the Obama Administration’s non-proliferation initiative. Also, the disposition of surplus plutonium, taken from nuclear weapons that are being removed from stockpiles (U. S. as well as Russian) is an ongoing concern and the subject of ongoing negotiation between NNSA, Russia  and the U. S. communities that harbor nuclear weapons R&D facilities and/or factories.

“The Budget includes $2.5 billion, a $163 million or 7% increase above the FY 2012 enacted level, which reflects completion of accelerated efforts to secure vulnerable nuclear materials within four years, the President’s stated time-frame. This proposal fully funds Administration priorities to secure and dispose of nuclear material, to develop technologies to prevent, deter, or detect nuclear proliferation, and to implement international nonproliferation treaties, regulatory controls, and safeguards. DOE will have removed more than 4,300 kilograms—over 170 nuclear warheads worth—of vulnerable nuclear material from sites around the world by the end of 2013.”

With political realities firmly in mind, the Huffington Post opined ( ): “Obama's [Budget] proposal has almost no chance of being approved by Congress, where Republicans control the House of Representatives. Tough decisions on the budget likely will be put off until after the November elections, but the spending plan will certainly be used as a campaign document for Obama and a key target for Republicans.”

Finally, as an interesting sideline, yesterday, in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on emerging threats to U. S. national security interests, testimony was solicited from the Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, and the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, Jr.

This testimony was rich in detail, but in no degree alarming. Even so, during the ensuing period of questions and answers, several Republican Senators tried to insinuate degrees of alarm into the Congressional Record. In this regard, particularly patronizing and smarmy were the questions and statements of Sen. Lindsey Graham.

But, not to be outdone in the realm of insinuation was Sen Larry Inhofe who referred to a recent Associated Press report of studies being conducted by the Pentagon of future directions for nuclear arms control ( ) which, he said, were cause for his great personal concern.

Of course, Sen. Inhofe had fought long and hard to oppose passage of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians. In this, he was aided by ten former U. S. nuclear weapons laboratory directors who, at his request, signed a letter attesting to their grave concerns at restrictions being placed on the future R&D of U. S. nuclear weapons.

Never given to self-doubt, no one of these ten former nuke lab directors has ever publicly questioned his signature on that letter.

Nevertheless, and perhaps while attempting a bit to excuse himself, former LANL Dir. Sig Hecker has written (Physics Today, Readers Forum, February, 2012) that his signature on that letter only attested to his disagreement with “certain Treaty language.” And, he labeled as “misguided” my characterization of his support for that letter as deriving from a desire to promote the health of the nuclear weapons industry. From either his present perch at LANL (as a guest of LANS-LLC), or while in his current office at the Hoover Institute (a bastion of traditionalist thinking), Hecker considers the notion that he might harbor any such desire to be “nonsense”, to which he takes “strong exception.”

Admittedly, and to his credit, in the early 1990’s and while still LANL Dir., Hecker promoted extensive exchange programs with former Soviet nuclear weapons workers at Arzamas-15. These efforts may have helped to bridge chasms of mistrust, between American and Russian nuclear weapons workers, built up over decades of Cold War experience. Partly, for this and partly for his recently having obtained and disseminated information relating to the North Korean nuclear weapon program (apparently, at the behest of the North Koreans), Mr. Hecker, although not a physicist,  has been honored with fellowship status by the American Physical Society.

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