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Build More Nukes? Forget It.

Devin Helfrich

Over the past year, a group of nuclear physicists has been studying a site on the banks of a beautiful river. Hidden from international nuclear inspectors, they are drawing up plans for a new facility, possibly along this river, designed to perform research on plutonium and build new nuclear bombs by the year 2020.Where is this river? Is it the Volga in Russia, the Karun in Iran, or Kuryong-gang in North Korea? Actually, it is none of those. These scientists are all looking at the Savannah River on the border of South Carolina and Georgia, only a few miles from where Tiger Woods played in the Masters.

Buried deep within the volumes of the Bush administration's annual budget proposal is an initial request for funds to start rebuilding its nuclear weapons infrastructure--at a price tag of over $150 billion. One possible location for this new H-bomb plant is the Savannah River site in South Carolina.

Why, in a world where the United States is legitimately worried about countries like Iran and North Korea building new nukes, is the Bush administration rebuilding its own nuclear weapons complex? While common in Washington, this type of hypocrisy is astonishing elsewhere.

In the early 1990s, the Cold War ended and with it the "need" for a massive nuclear weapons program--or so sensible people thought. After initial reductions in the number of nuclear warheads and delivery systems, the current administration has, since its early days in office, envisioned a revitalized role for them. As Thomas P. D'Agostino, acting under-secretary for nuclear security in the National Nuclear Security Administration, testified to the House Armed Services Subcommittee that the administration's plans "would restore us to a level of [nuclear weapon] capability comparable to what we had during the Cold War."


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The administration has a grab bag full of justifications for this new bomb plant, called "Complex 2030" for the date it will be completed. If one doesn't fit, try another. At the forefront was the argument that the plutonium inside existing nuclear warheads would be susceptible to age-related failures, with the oldest rendered "unreliable" within two decades and thus needing replacement. This assertion was recently proved inaccurate when a panel of scientists using the government's own data concluded in a congressionally mandated report that plutonium within existing nuclear weapons would be "reliable" for a minimum of at least 85 years.

Adjusting, the DOE line then began to focus on the claim that Complex 2030 and the new bomb plant are needed in order to continue downsizing the current weapons stockpile. The agency's argument is that by rebuilding nuclear weapons facilities, DOE will feel confident in its ability to produce new nuclear weapons when needed, and thus be able to reduce the number of active warheads. This is a strange argument: A shiny new nuclear weapons complex that would be capable of pumping out 125 to 200 new nukes a year to help the United States reach the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.

For those who don't want new nuclear weapons, take heart. Money talks in Washington and the über-steep price tag for an obsolete weapon has many members of Congress doing a double take. Rep. Peter Visclosky, (D-Ind.), chair of the House subcommittee that funds nuclear weapons, believes that there should be a thoughtful evaluation of "why the United States needs to build new nuclear warheads at this time."

Congress should step up and confront the legacy of vested interests from this country's half-century old nuclear weapons industry. As Robert Civiak, a former White House budget official in the first Bush and Clinton administrations stated, "The weapons labs are more interested in job security than national security." Rather than let tens of billions of dollars slip out of the treasury for building the most dangerous weapon in human history, Congress should reevaluate U.S. nuclear weapons policy with an honest scrutiny. Devin Helfrich is a legislative assistant with the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington, D.C., and works on defense and foreign policy issues.

© 2006

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