Disarmament by Default?

The Bush administration's agreement to deep new reductions in the number of nuclear weapons deployed by U.S. and Russian armed forces might be another welcome step forward in the Cold War's long thaw. Or it could be an agreement struck by the U.S. side out of dire necessity, due to the mounting failures of a Department of Energy program intended to maintain the safety and reliability of a U.S. nuclear-weapons stockpile frozen in time — and aging in place, perhaps dangerously — after the nation voluntarily halted nuclear testing a decade ago. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

A voluntary U.S. testing halt instituted in 1992 was hailed by anti-nuclear activists as a step toward a safer world. The American people eagerly embraced that sentiment and dozed off on the subject, seeming to believe that the disunion of the Soviet empire made nuclear weapons — and the question of their long-term care and maintenance — irrelevant. But the test ban had risks and dangers of its own — ones that are little appreciated by the general public and only recently becoming evident, when reversing course and rebuilding the U.S. nuclear arsenal may be politically and technically untenable.

Since the advent of the atomic bomb, testing had been used by the “nuclear priesthood” to bring increased precision, safety, and reliability to the science and art of unleashing Armageddon. But when real world testing was halted, in deference to a never-ratified treaty, the Department of Energy (DOE) embarked on an ambitious but risky effort, called science-based stockpile stewardship, to maintain that same level of confidence through computer simulations and exotic diagnostic techniques whose feasibility was largely theoretical. It was a decision of momentous consequence made with hardly a word of public debate.

Much of the Nevada Test Site fell silent after 1992. Highly specialized weapons facilities were mothballed or shut down, their skilled workers dispersed. Tired of twiddling their thumbs, many top nuclear scientists and designers headed for the exits, leaving DOE brain-drained. Those left behind gamely scrambled to meet the stockpile stewardship mandate, even while a few voices in the wilderness worried aloud that it couldn't be done. And in the meantime, the weapons and warheads themselves aged in place — leaving many deployed in the field well beyond their designed life expectancies.

Groping for analogies, some scientists said the stewardship program was like buying a brand new Ferrari and parking it in a garage for 20 or 30 years, then, in the event of some future emergency, gambling one's life on its ability to roar to life and perform flawlessly on demand.

That gamble's eminent failure has been hinted at by signals from the Bush administration that it might be contemplating a return to testing in Nevada, the mere possibility of which naturally stirred up the anti-nuclear lobby … and provides a foreshadowing of the political firestorm a return to testing, and the modernization of the nuclear arsenal, would spark. According to media speculation, the new posture toward testing may have been prompted by a top-secret Nuclear Posture Review that called for cutting the amount of time needed to resume testing from the two- to three-year time period permitted by the Clinton administration to one year or less. A provision recently slipped into the House version of the fiscal 2003 Defense Authorization Bill funded the further exploration of that possibility. And a resumption of testing is suddenly being raised by policymakers as a real possibility. “If the surveillance program can't do the job, we will have to resume testing to make sure our [nuclear] weapons work,” Virginia Sen. John Warner, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, not long ago stated.

These developments follow a string of gloomy assessments and critiques of the stewardship program by DOE's office of inspector general and the General Accounting Office (GAO). According to GAO's most recent look at the program, DOE has not yet developed an effective and comprehensive life-extension program for maintaining and refurbishing the nuclear stockpile. And GAO and IG have warned repeatedly (most recently in April) about a looming shortage of plutonium pits, which serve as triggers for nuclear warheads, and raised the possibility that a lack of a new production line for pits (the old one was shut down years ago and never replaced as planned) could leave the U.S. with bombs that won't go boom.

In December, DOE's IG reported on a mounting backlog in periodic safety and reliability inspections of weapons and warheads, warning that “if these delays continue, the department may not be in a position to unconditionally certify the aging nuclear weapons stockpile.” The IG has in recent years also warned: that nuclear weapon testing milestones were not being met, meaning that DOE “lacks critical information on the reliability of specific weapons involved”; that the department was failing to recruit enough qualified scientists and technicians to meet mission requirements; and that “the nuclear weapons production infrastructure was not being adequately maintained,” putting stewardship goals “at risk”.

All of which may also help explain the surprising, almost precipitous haste with which the disarmament deal was hammered out. Better to negotiate a nuclear drawdown and get political Brownie points for it, so the thinking in the administration might go, than to begin unilaterally dismantling U.S. weapons that can no longer be certified as safe and reliable. That would also mean having to admit the folly of a politically popular test ban and the abject failure of a multi-billion dollar stewardship effort about which the public was barely aware.

The new agreement buys time, allowing the U.S. to retire warheads whose safety and reliably were becoming a worry anyway. But it only temporary defers the necessity of modernizing and rebuilding what will remain of the downsized arsenal. Eventually, the nation still will have to execute an expensive and politically contentious about-face, including a return to real-world testing, the reopening or rebuilding of mothballed production facilities, and the reinvigoration of the Department of Energy's moribund weapon's design program.

Each of these steps presents huge political and technical challenges, judging from the nagging nuclear-phobia evident in the politically charged battles underway over the storage of nuclear waste in Nevada and the transport of plutonium to South Carolina. And the longer we abide by the test ban and go down the path of stockpile stewardship, the harder it will become to find our way back to where we were before we began the dead-end detour.

But perhaps the greatest hurdle standing in the way of nuclear-weapons modernization is a psychological one. Will Americans recognize the need to maintain a nuclear arsenal into the indefinite future, and reconstitute a weapon's program they associate with the bad old days of the Cold War? Or will they choose to stay the current course of disarmament by default, in which an antiquated U.S. arsenal gradually falls into disrepair and is retired from service because of benign neglect? The latest U.S.-Russian arms agreement defers the day of reckoning on these questions, but does not do away with it.