On the eve of an important hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee on President Obama’s nuclear weapons policies and programs and the New START Treaty, Senator Jon Kyl has reasserted his leadership role on such issues. The last time he did that in connection with a major arms control accord, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was rejected by an actual majority of the United States Senate.
Big Peace has learned that earlier this week Sen. Kyl arranged a private briefing for key colleagues – several of whom are members of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees. The latter is to take testimony tomorrow from the directors of the national laboratories, the individuals charged with certifying that the nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile will work when they are supposed to, and won’t when they are not.
As a practical matter, it falls to the directors of the Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories to confirm fulfillment of the commitment President Obama expressed in Prague last April: “As long as [nuclear] weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.”
When Los Alamos’ George Miller, Livermore’s Michael Anastasio and Sandia’s Tom Hunter testify tomorrow, they will be under tremendous pressure to obscure a troubling reality: Their ability to certify the reliability of the stockpile is increasingly a function of informed guesswork, not hard science. In the eighteen years since the United States last conducted an underground nuclear detonation – the only proven way to confirm the full functioning of a weapon, the labs have been obliged to use various computational and other techniques for simulating what has happened to weapons that are now, on average over 30 years old and 15 years beyond their design service life.
As a result, the scientific method of rigorous experimentation that long underpinned both the U.S. stockpile and past certifications by the current lab directors’ predecessors has been replaced by a glorified, high-tech version of divining – a feat being performed by a community of people who are, with a handful of exceptions, lacking firsthand experience with the design and testing of nuclear weapons.
Senator Kyl and seven of his colleagues heard yesterday from two of those who do have such experience – one a former lab director, the other an individual with ongoing responsibilities in the nuclear weapons complex. The unmistakable bottom line is this: The United States alone among nuclear powers is allowing its nuclear enterprise to deteriorate. Parts of the manufacturing infrastructure date to the Manhattan Project. Some of our nuclear weapons are so old they actually depend on vacuum tubes. The very best and brightest are no longer being attracted to or staying in the laboratories’ make-work weapons programs – especially now that President Obama is explicitly “devaluing” their mission. And the business of certification is increasingly removed from hard scientific data based on actual tests. Indeed, one participant recounted how a laboratory employee complained recently that he didn’t “like experimentation because it conflicted with his calculations.” So much for the scientific method.
To be sure, the three lab directors have previously publicly stated their support for President Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review – and they can be expected, all other things being equal, to go along tomorrow with the continued hobbling it dictates of their ability to do their jobs. As they put it when the NPR was released: “We believe that the approach outlined in the NPR, which excludes further nuclear testing and includes the consideration of the full range of life extension options (refurbishment of existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components from different warheads and replacement of nuclear components based on previously tested designs), provides the necessary technical flexibility to manage the nuclear stockpile into the future with an acceptable level of risk.”
The directors added, however, “We are reassured that a key component of the NPR is the recognition of the importance of supporting ‘a modern physical infrastructure – comprised of the national security laboratories and a complex of supporting facilities – and a highly capable workforce with the specialized skills needed to sustain the nuclear deterrent.'”
The technical term for such statements is “whistling past the graveyard” – hoping that nothing bad will come from perpetuating an approach to stockpile certification that is clearly deficient, and that oft-promised investments and technology innovations which might – repeat might - mitigate some of the associated risks will actually materialize this time.
Unfortunately, for the lab directors and the country, they are keenly aware that they can be fired at will by the Secretary of Energy, and without cause. And their colleagues and institutions can be punished by the withholding of funds – something that has been threatened and done in the past.
So the only way the Armed Services Committee is likely to get the unvarnished truth tomorrow is if members press these scientists to go beyond parroting the party line and offer their personal, professional and candid assessments of the degree of risk associated with their forced abandonment of nuclear testing and with it the full application of the scientific method. The reality is that, when combined with Team Obama’s prohibition on the design and production of new nuclear weapons, the United States is being condemned to the continuing atrophying of both the nuclear stockpile and confidence in its safety, security and effectiveness.
Senator Kyl is to be commended for his leadership in exposing his colleagues to such unhappy truths. It now behooves the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committee to allow critics knowledgeable and concerned about these realities to make them part of the Senate’s deliberations on the wisdom of the New START Treaty – an accord that is explicitly designed to enshrine and advance the President’s goal of denuclearizing the world, an unachievable and actually undesirable objective. Absent corrective action by the Congress, the only country likely to be disarmed will be ours.