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The battle over new nukes at home

This week legislators debate the fate of a proposed plutonium bomb factory in the U.S. — a multi-billion-dollar project that the Bush administration says would help maintain a defensive arsenal, while critics say it heralds a new arms race. By Kari Huus.
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North Korea’s nuclear claims continue to steal the headlines, but in Washington, plodding through the democratic — and certainly less dramatic — system are initiatives by the Bush administration to beef up the American nuclear arsenal. This week marks the final chapter in public comment on a proposed new plutonium bomb factory to be built in the U.S. While proponents say this multi-billion-dollar project would merely help maintain a defensive arsenal, critics say it could spark a new arms race.

At issue is a new Modern Pit Facility designed for annual production of 150-450 plutonium pits, or cores. The pits are softball-sized nuclear bombs used to trigger the thermonuclear reaction of the far more powerful hydrogen bombs in nuclear warheads.

The rationale for a new plant — which could be built in one of five possible sites — is to replenish pits for nuclear weapons that otherwise will degrade over time, according to the Department of Energy, which oversees nuclear weapons and related clean-up. These pits haven’t been manufactured on a large scale in the United States since the 1989 closure of the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado and proponents say the new plutonium pit production is needed to maintain a viable defensive nuclear arsenal.

But environmental and nonproliferation activists say the scope of the project suggests it is also aimed at supporting controversial new designs of nuclear weapons pursued by the Bush administration, as well as a capacity far beyond what is needed, given post Cold War nonproliferation agreements, sending the wrong message to the world as the United States seeks to limit weapons of mass destruction.

“It’s like a drunk preaching abstinence from the bar stool as he buys another round,” says Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the non-profit Alliance for Nuclear Accountability.

On Wednesday, with the final in a series of public hearings, leaders of dozens of organizations opposing the facility descended on the final formal public hearing on the plant. All public comment closes Aug. 5.

Previous hearings were held at the five sites around the country that are under consideration for the plant. Some were strongly opposed, pointing to the risks demonstrated in Rocky Flats, which was shut down after a nearly disastrous fire, and disclosures of radioactive contamination in the area. But a few have lobbied tenaciously to win the project, hoping for an economic boost. Construction of the plant is expected to run $2 billion-$4 billion, with operating costs of some $200 million-$300 million a year.

Ultimately, the decision comes down to funding, which is being debated in the House and Senate, and very much in limbo.

What is enough?
The debate centers on how many nuclear weapons the U.S. seeks to maintain, whether nuclear weapons are a relic of the Cold War or an essential part of a strategic modern force, and how U.S. choices affect efforts to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction around the world.

The recently ratified Moscow Treaty limits deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons to 2,200 by 2012, but exactly how many pits are needed is still open to interpretation, in part because of debate on how long they last, and in part because of gray areas in the treaty.

“The Bush administration has decided to maintain some 6,000 or more weapons essentially ready for use, although only perhaps 2,200 of these will be dubbed “operationally deployed” in the year 2012,” says physicist Richard Garwin, a senior fellow for Science and Technology at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Garwin who has served on a blue-ribbon commission on nuclear pits, argues that the U.S. should be shooting for a total of 1,000-2,000 nuclear weapons in 2012, a level that would require only a small rebuild facility which already exists at Los Alamos, New Mexico. National security objectives lie in effective non-proliferation efforts, he argues. “In order to accomplish this, the United States must at least limit its own holdings and show itself to be on a glide path to lower numbers and possibly to the elimination of nuclear weapons.”

The big question: money
So far, the project has received mixed reviews in Congress. A House committee allocated less than half $22.8 million requested for research and environmental assessment on the project — an outcome all the more surprising since the chairman of the committee is a Republican. David Hobson (R-OH) said his top priority was the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada, which would handle high-level nuclear waste now stored in Idaho.

“Unfortunately, the Department of Energy continues to ask Congress to fund a Cold War nuclear arsenal, and the nuclear weapons complex necessary to maintain that arsenal, even though we no longer face a Cold War adversary,” said Hobson.

On related nuclear initiatives, the subcommittee was equally unconvinced: It eliminated $6 million sought by the administration to research “advanced concept” nuclear weapons that the Pentagon is interested in developing for purposes that so far remain classified. It allocated $5 million for research of nuclear “bunker busters,” designed to penetrate the ground and blow up suspected chemical or biological weapons sites, just one-third the amount that was requested.

The push for new types of nuclear weapons, which surfaced in the Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review in January, 2002, is clearly tied to the current war on terrorism. In a recent meeting with reporters, Energy Undersecretary Linton Brooks said the proposed earth-penetrating nuclear warheads and research into low-yield nuclear weapons would “preserve the capability to adapt to changing times” and was not intended to restart an arms race.

But this line of reasoning provoked alarm among arms control experts who saw it as a dangerous drift towards the “acceptable use” nuclear weapons, and a blurring of the lines between nuclear and conventional weapons.

“We’re disappointed. ... We didn’t expect it,” said Anson Franklin, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the branch of the Energy Department that oversees all nuclear weapons programs.

He said the administration will try to get the money restored when the spending bill gets before the full House, or, failing that, in the Senate when the spending bill comes before it.

For activists who oppose the project, the goal is to put a stop to it while it is still in the research phase.

“The history of stopping mega projects is you have to kill them when they’re small and and its still early,” says Schaeffer of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. “Once they have concrete or steel in the ground, it’s very hard to stop.”

But in the Senate, where Pete Domenici (R-NM) chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the outcome may be very different than in the House. Domenici is a strong advocate for the modern pit facility, and for Carlsbad, New Mexico, his home state, as the site for that project.