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Bush Nuclear Program Squandering Billions, NRDC Charges

WASHINGTON, DC, April 14, 2004 (ENS) - The Natural Resources Defense Council is calling on Congress to curb the Bush administration's appetite for nuclear weapons development, and blaming the administration for "wasting billions" on nuclear weapons stockpile research and production. In a new report issued Monday, the million member national, nonprofit organization says nonproliferation efforts are being left behind in a rush to develop new nuclear projects.

A high energy fusion laser being built at Livermore, California; a facility that is supposed to test the primary stage of a nuclear weapon at Los Alamos, New Mexico; a host of high-speed computer programs at those two labs as well as Sandia in New Mexico and California - these projects and plans to resurrect U.S. nuclear weapon production capability by manufacturing the spherical metal cores of thermonuclear weapons called plutonium pits - are the focus of the report "Weaponeers of Waste."

The report, analyzes Department of Energy (DOE) programs and concludes the Bush administration is spending 12 times more on nuclear weapons research and production than on retrieval, and secure disposal of nuclear weapons materials worldwide.

Pantex

The Department of Energy's Pantex plant occupies 25 square miles, 17 miles northeast of Amarillo, Texas. Pantex is the primary site for storage of plutonium in the United States. Presently, there are 12,067 plutonium pits onsite in bunkers like these - about 60 tons. (Photo courtesy RadTexas)
Much of the spending on weapons research and production, which amounted to $6.5 billion in fiscal 2004, is funding costly projects that are "irrelevant to the defense and security challenges" that confront the nation, the report found.

"The Energy Department is asking Congress for $6.8 billion for nuclear weapons projects for next year's budget - double what we spent a decade ago," said Christopher Paine, a senior policy analyst at NRDC's Nuclear Program and author of the report.

"Spending billions to extend the life of thousands of Cold War nuclear warheads is a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. The government could keep a small fraction of those weapons in the stockpile and spend the rest of the money to make the world safer by eliminating nuclear threats."

The programs that Paine focuses on are part of the stockpile stewardship program, which is supposed to guarantee a safe and reliable nuclear weapons stockpile in absence of full scale underground testing. Such testing is prohibited by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

But the Bush administration is getting ready to undertake nuclear testing in the near future. In the 2004 National Defense Authorization Act Conference Report, it states, "Commencing not later than October 1, 2006, the Secretary of Energy shall achieve, and thereafter maintain, a readiness posture of not more than 18 months for resumption by the United States of underground tests of nuclear weapons."

Stockpile stewardship projects located at the three national weapons laboratories - Los Alamos in New Mexico, Lawrence Livermore in California, and Sandia in New Mexico and California - have eaten billions of dollars while producing little of benefit, the NRDC charges.

"DOE has pursued these projects over the past decade with little accountability or oversight, consuming vast sums of money along the way," said Paine. "At a time of record budget deficits, it's time for Congress to take a hard look at these programs and either cancel them outright or cut them back significantly."

During fiscal year 2004, the National Defense Stockpile Manager may obligate up to $69.7 billion of the funds in the National Defense Stockpile Transaction Fund established under the Strategic and Critical Materials Stock Piling Act, including the disposal of hazardous materials that are environmentally sensitive, the 2004 National Defense Authorization Act Conference Report states. Congress authorizes the Manager to spend even more if "extraordinary or emergency conditions necessitate the additional obligations."

NIF

The interior of the National Ignition Facility target chamber, which weighs one million pounds and measures 30 feet in diameter. (Photo courtesy Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)
The NRDC is critical of such spending and also critical of other nuclear projects such as the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. Paine points out that the DOE sold Livermore's high energy fusion laser, the National Ignition Facility, to Congress in 1997 by saying it would be ready to begin the quest for fusion ignition in fiscal year 2005 at a cost of $1.2 billion.

"Now it appears that DOE's weapons laboratory scientists vastly overstated their scientific and technical readiness to pursue fusion ignition experiments, and that an ignition-ready NIF project will cost as much as $5 billion to $8 billion by the time of the first ignition demonstration sometime between 2010 and 2014, if it happens at all," the report states.

The DOE is planning a new facility at South Carolina's Savannah River Site to produce tritium, a gas placed in warheads to enhance nuclear explosions. The facility, originally due to begin production at the end of this year at a cost of $391 million, will now cost at least $506 million, and startup has been pushed back three years, to late 2007.

"Most puzzling of all," the NRDC report says, is the 12 year, $2.5 billion effort by Los Alamos National Laboratory to "reconstitute" a capability by 2009 to fabricate and "certify" the performance of a mere 20 plutonium pits per year. How could it possibly cost that much to "restore" a capability for pit fabrication that Los Alamos has had for five decades and never "lost"? Where did all that money go? The organization calls for "a fullscale congressional audit" of this project.

"In a real world sense, however, this hardly matters," Paine pointed out, "because if the United States adopted a sensible nuclear arms reduction policy, the facility would not be needed for decades."

Over the next five years the Bush administration plans to spend $36.6 billion to modernize the nuclear weapons stockpile and laboratory production complex, including $485 million to develop, test, and begin production of the controversial robust nuclear earth penetrating warhead.

Developing a new generation of nuclear weapons could restart an international arms race, Paine said, making the world less secure. "Essentially we are now in an arms race with ourselves, but we could spur other countries, like China and Russia, to jump back in."

The NRDC report recommends that Congress:

  • Defer action on any new facility or weapons refurbishment request until the administration submits and Congress approves a plan reducing the number of nuclear warheads "to sensible levels" in a post-Cold War world.

  • Consolidate the nuclear weapons complex to eliminate Cold War redundancies, reduce its size, and curb escalating security costs

  • End funding for the robust nuclear earth penetrator and other new nuclear weapon designs. The Secretary of Energy may not commence the engineering development phase of the nuclear weapons development process, or any subsequent phase, of a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator weapon unless specifically authorized by Congress.

  • End funding for preparations to resume nuclear testing.

  • Scrap plans to build a new facility to manufacture plutonium nuclear bomb pits and instead replace worn-out pits by refurbishing 20 to 50 per year, based on existing recycled or recast designs.

  • Reinvigorate unilateral, bilateral, multilateral, and international efforts to reduce and eliminate national stocks of nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear materials.

  • Direct DOE to establish an independent outside advisory committee under the Federal Advisory Committee Act to conduct peer reviews of stockpile stewardship and technology projects.

The report is available at: http://www.nrdc.org/nuclear/weaponeers/contents.asp



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