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Defense / NATIONAL SECURITY

U.S. Nuclear Arms Due for High-Cost Revamp

National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Thomas D'Agostino.(AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

September 17, 2012

This article was originally published in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

The United States is on track to undertake the priciest revamp to date of its nuclear weapons and associated infrastructure, despite anticipated funding reductions to other weapon initiatives by the country's armed forces during a period of budgetary constraints, The Washington Post reported on Saturday.

The deteriorating status of facilities responsible for supporting U.S. nuclear-weapon operations has been an issue facing presidents for the last 20 years, but decision-makers have bolstered the ultimate expense of updates by deferring the high-cost, low-profile sustainment initiatives.

The United States has established no formal expense projection for the modernization and upkeep of its 5,113 nuclear weapons, swapping out antiquated launch vehicles and overhauling sites used to carry out atomic operations. Managing and sustaining the nation's nuclear armaments would require no less than $352 billion in the next 10 years, the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington said in a June assessment; the cost could be significantly greater, especially if maintenance projects face further postponement, according to separate observers.

 

Meanwhile, the nation's armed forces have decreased their reliance on nuclear arms to stave off foreign aggression. Instead, they have looked increasingly toward focused actions reliant on special operations personnel and toward rapid use of force in fighting contemporary antagonists.

Still, the need for significant expenditures to sustain the country's silo-, submarine-, and aircraft-based nuclear armaments is a matter of agreement among U.S. government personnel and a large number of independent experts. Continued inaction through 2013 would probably eliminate any opportunity to blueprint and construct replacement assets necessary if the existing weapons are undependable or potentially hazardous, the sources said.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I haven’t seen a moment like this,” National Nuclear Security Administration head Thomas D’Agostino said. D'Agostino's agency, a semiautonomous branch of the Energy Department, is responsible for overseeing the nation's nuclear stockpile and its supporting facilities.

President Obama is seeking more than $7.5 billion in fiscal 2013 for carrying out atomic-armament updates, $1.1 billion more than in the current budget year that ends on Sept. 30. The Pentagon has for the first time backed plans to put forward $8 billion over half a decade for such efforts.

“We came in thinking it had been taken care of and were shocked to hear how poorly it had been treated,” said Jon Wolfsthal, formerly a top counselor on arms control issues for Vice President Joe Biden.

Washington would have to dole out tens of billions of dollars to ensure its nuclear weapons and missiles remain prepared for combat and resistant to accidents. The Defense Department has said updating B-61 nuclear gravity bombs alone would probably require $10 billion in half a decade.

As much as $110 billion could be necessary for constructing a dozen new ballistic-missile submarines to supplant the 1980s-era Ohio-class fleet, the Congressional Budget Office has projected. A $7 billion revamp of the country's Minuteman 3 ICBMs is under way amid discussion of a potential successor to the weapon. The country is also manufacturing F-35 planes suited to carry nuclear bombs; the jets each carry a $162 million price tag.

The National Nuclear Security Administration has said overhauling nuclear-weapon science and production sites is anticipated to require no less than $88 billion in a decade.

The "9212" highly enriched uranium processing center, a decades-old component of the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, best exemplifies the decay seen at the 40 structures judged by NNSA assessments to require improvements, according to The Post. The atomic agency has said an unexpected suspension in 9212 activities would interrupt hazards-mitigation efforts for armaments while potentially idling nonmilitary reactors around the world that are dependent on the site's low-enriched nuclear fuel.

Metal lining in the 9212 structure's interior has oxidized and broken down considerably, Darrel Kohlhorst noted prior to his resignation last month as head of the Y-12 site's contract operator. Liquid penetrates the site in periods of rainfall, he said. “If water hits the floor, we treat it like a contaminated spill,” Kohlhorst added.

Despite longtime calls by atomic specialists for a successor structure, cheaper updates and science-focused projects have been alternatives favored by multiple presidents. The anticipated expense of the new site has risen to $6.5 billion, an increase of more than tenfold since 2004.

Early expense projections are consistently "speculative," and end projections require plans to be near completion, NNSA spokesman Joshua McConaha said in accounting for the change.

The National Nuclear Security Administration's budgetary oversight has been subject to criticism in past years from the Defense Department, Government Accountability Office, and certain legislators. The agency's supervision of activities by private firms has for 22 years been included on a GAO "high-risk list" for corruption and unnecessary spending.

The projected expense of an arms operations site -- once slated for construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina -- increased from $1.4 billion to $5 billion prior to the project's cancellation; initial preparations for the facility absorbed $700 million. The cost of a fuel production site planned for the South Carolina complex has increased to $5 billion -- a threefold jump -- and its anticipated 2016 completion date is 10 years later than originally intended.

President Obama over the past 12 months has weighed potential moves for the atomic arsenal as he establishes guidance that would be used in developing the details of an updated nuclear combat strategy.

Obama hopes through negotiations with Russia to decrease the deployed U.S. arsenal to 1,100 strategic nuclear weapons, down from the 1,550-weapon ceiling each side is required to meet in coming years under the bilateral New START treaty, according to independent observers and certain U.S. government insiders. Most analysts believe he would delay any statement on the matter until after the presidential campaign concludes.

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