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Do We Have to Spend This Much on Nukes?

General belt-tightening, followed by more belt-tightening with sequestration, is forcing the nation’s multibillion-dollar nuclear weapons complex to realize that the free-spending days of the Cold War are over.

“The job of delivering nuclear defense was a job everybody took seriously. ... And in a given year we spent our time concerned with achieving that and less with, I would argue, understanding the cost of things because of the imperative to deliver during the Cold War.”

That’s how Neile Miller, acting administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, explained the almost cavalier attitude over the past 20 years toward spending on nuclear weapons during her appearance at a Feb. 14 hearing of the House Appropriations energy and water development subcommittee.

Miller told the panel: “So you might rightly ask, ‘It’s been a long time since the end of the Cold War. What gives?’ ”

What gives is that for the most part the NNSA, and to a degree the Defense Department, must get serious about how they look at the nuclear threat since they are not going to have unlimited cash for deterrence. It’s not just that money for nukes is no longer unlimited — it’s also that policymakers are realizing the nation doesn’t need as many nuclear weapons as it has.

In the crazy Cold War days, we and the Soviets made it a numbers game, both sides building up to some 30,000 bombs and warheads for intercontinental strategic delivery systems and shorter-range weapons, supposedly for the tactical battlefield.

Bilateral treaties between Washington and Moscow have lowered both nations’ stockpiles by more than 85 percent. But as Don Cook, NNSA deputy administrator for defense programs, told the Exchange Monitor’s Fifth Annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit on Feb. 21, the last official number released by the U.S. government in 2009 was still 5,113 warheads and bombs.

Cook said that the U.S. total has dropped to “a bit under 5,000 warheads” as the nation works toward the limit set by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1,550 deployed warheads by 2018. The treaty sets no limit on non-deployed warheads.

Remember, 68 years ago just two very low-yield — by today’s standards — atomic bombs all but destroyed two Japanese cities and ended a war.

At the Exchange Monitor session, Ellen Tauscher, former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, said her opinion was that 1,000 deployed warheads and an additional 1,500 as a hedge would be “enough for deterrence or threats.” But she said she had been out of government for a year and did not know what President Obama has approved in his as-yet unreleased interagency study, completed last fall.

One thing she said she was certain of, given the atmosphere here and abroad: “No reductions with Russia at least through 2014.”

Another Exchange Monitor speaker, retired Gen. Larry D. Welch, former Air Force chief of staff, explained how the number of nuclear warheads needed for deterrence has gone down over the years because of “smarter targeting.” Welch said at one time four nuclear bombs or warheads were aimed at one target, what he called “overkill.” Now it is two weapons to one target.

Welch also said the 12 types of older warheads and bombs are being reduced to five as part of the stockpile’s life extension program. Most of today’s nuclear weapons were designed in the 1970s and produced in the 1980s. Some are being retired and eventually will be dismantled. Those that go through the extension program have non-nuclear components tested; in some cases, modernized parts will be added while the nuclear package remains untested.

The same facility that assembles weapons, the Pantex plant in Texas, also dismantles most of the old ones. Safety and security require a slow process in which only 100 warheads or bombs go through the system in a year. For example, Miller noted that warheads retired as of fiscal 2009 will not all be dismantled until fiscal 2022.

Speaking of safety, Cook made a point of telling the Monitor Exchange that by a “presidential directive” made before the Obama administration, the NNSA is undertaking research that pursues “technologies that render their ⅛nuclear weapons’⅜ unauthorized use impossible without their remanufacture.” Many nuclear weapons have locks to prevent them from being armed without a code, but given terrorist threats, this study appears to be a remote way to make them useless if stolen.

The NNSA’s overspending has been criticized for years. Its major capital construction projects traditionally have cost multiples of original estimates. The new uranium-processing facility at Oak Ridge, Tenn., whose design is nearing conclusion, has estimates that range from $4.2 billion to $6.5 billion, according to Cook, because of the scientific unknowns that remain. It needs $120 million reprogrammed from fiscal 2012 funds to make up for delaying a new plutonium facility and faces the need for $100 million to store uranium from retired Navy propulsion reactors.

For the first time, according to the NNSA’s Miller, “we are maturing the budget processes and the programming and planning processes,” but they won’t be ready until the fiscal 2016 budget.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post and writes the Fine Print column.