Obama light on nuclear specifics

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By John Severance

President Obama was light on the details when it came to reducing the country’s nuclear stockpile.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Obama said, “we will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands — because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead.”

Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) wanted to hear more about the White House’s plans in regards to the nuclear issue.

“Moving forward, one area that we must hear more about from the president is his goal of reducing our nation’s nuclear weapon stockpile, Luján said. “It will be critical to examine the details of this plan to determine its impact on New Mexico; however, I believe Los Alamos National Laboratory has an important role to play in achieving this goal and in maintaining and ensuring the safety of a smaller nuclear deterrent.”

NNSA spokesperson Josh McConaha released a fact sheet Tuesday night in regards to nuclear disarmament.

The fact sheet first addressed the process that is used.

After a warhead is retired, NNSA is responsible for storing it until it is ready for dismantling it and disposing of its components. For the last three years, NNSA has dismantled weapons at a rate faster than its own goals, reaching a 112 percent dismantlement rate in 2012. All weapons retired by 2009 will be permanently eliminated by 2022.

Dismantling a nuclear weapon is a lengthy process that involves all of the facilities in NNSA’s nuclear weapons enterprise. First, the design laboratories (Los Alamos National Laboratory , and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the engineering lab, Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, work with the production facilities to identify the best dismantlement process for each weapon system and mitigate any hazards that may arise before a particular weapon type is taken apart. 

The unique knowledge gained during the original design of the weapon is critical to ensuring that it is safely dismantled and disposed of.

Once the weapon is retired and designated for dismantlement, it is first brought to the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas. Pantex is responsible for assembling and disassembling nuclear warheads. During dismantlement, the high explosives are removed from special nuclear material — highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium — and disposed of on site. Non-nuclear components are either processed on site or sent to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina (gas reservoirs) and the Kansas City Plant in Missouri (electrical and mechanical components) for final processing and ultimate disposal.

The weapon’s secondary system is shipped to the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., for dismantlement. HEU removed from those systems is stored at NNSA’s new, state-of-the-art secure storage facility at Y-12 until it is used as fuel for the U.S. Navy’s submarine and aircraft carrier nuclear reactors, processed for use in lifetime extension programs (LEP) for other weapons systems or declared surplus and ultimately disposed of. Plutonium pits will be also be disassembled and eliminated. 

In FY 2012, NNSA claims it achieved 112 percent of its required weapons dismantlements at Pantex. NNSA successfully dismantled a number of B61 and B83-0/1 bombs and W76-0, W80-0, W84 and W78 warheads. Y-12 met 100 percent of its Canned Subassembly (CSA) dismantlement requirement.

Then the NNSA outlined some near-term initiatives concerning dismantlement of retired warheads and bombs

• Complete work on the B53 CSAs scheduled at Y-12 and Pantex (CSA extractions)

Reduce the legacy material inventories at the Design Agencies and Production Agencies

• Dismantle W80-1 warheads necessary to provide parts for the W80-1 Alt 369

• Reduce legacy part inventories to provide additional staging capacity at Pantex

• Continue to support the U.S. Navy’s request for additional W76-0 dismantlements

• Longer-term and ongoing actions to be taken include

• Dismantle all nuclear weapons retired prior to 2009 no later than the end of FY 2022

• Plan the transfer of dismantlement operations from existing facilities at Y-12 to the Uranium Processing Facility

• Continue to support nonproliferation, LEP, and surveillance needs

News of the possibility of the Obama administration reducing its nuclear stockpile by one-third was received well by watchdog groups.

Jay Coghlan, Nuclear Watch New Mexico Director, said, “Substituting more usable lower-yield nuclear weapons for higher-yield weapons is undeniably a new military capability in and of itself. At the same time, we are undermining our own national security, first through the bad proliferation example we set for others, and second by possibly lowering confidence in stockpile reliability through the introduction of major changes to our extensively tested nuclear weapons. Further cuts to deployed strategic nuclear weapons are clearly a very good thing. But the next needed step is for all nuclear weapons powers, including the U.S., to adopt a deterrence-only posture that conservatively maintains nuclear arsenals while awaiting negotiated, verified disarmament.”

Another watchdog group said simply reducing the stockpile is not enough.

Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, a group based in Washington State, had this to say.

“While a positive step towards disarmament, simply reducing the number of deployed nuclear weapons will not effectively reduce the risk of either accidental or intentional nuclear war.

“The President should take immediate steps to take nuclear weapons off alert status, and end the policy of launch on warning. He also should pledge that the U.S. will never consider nuclear weapons as a first strike option. These basic steps will make our nation more secure by immediately reducing the risk of accidental nuclear war.”