Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Journal Staff Writer
They called it "the virtual sword."
In January 1990, as the Soviet Union collapsed, a pair of defense industry consultants wrote a paper outlining a new approach to meeting military needs in the post-Cold War world.
Rather than a pipeline constantly churning out new weapons, Ted Gold and Rich Wagner wrote, the United States should develop the industrial research and manufacturing capability to build weapons if needed.
We do not need a huge arsenal, they argued. Instead, we could deter future enemies merely by showing that we have the capability to build new weapons when we need them. The essay was titled "Long Shadows and Virtual Swords."
Fast-forward to Dec. 18.
In a Washington, D.C., news conference, the man in charge of the U.S. nuclear weapons design and manufacturing process seemed to be echoing Gold and Wagner.
"Because our nuclear weapons stockpile is decreasing, the United States' future deterrent cannot be based on the old Cold War model of the number of weapons," said Thomas D'Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration. "Rather, it must be based on the capability to respond to any national security situation, and make weapons only if necessary."
The proposal D'Agostino laid out, in the news conference and accompanying documents, calls for a modest U.S. nuclear weapons design and manufacturing complex.
For New Mexico, the implications of D'Agostino's vision are huge.
The critical "virtual sword" in the U.S. nuclear arsenal of the future will be Los Alamos National Laboratory's ability to manufacture plutonium "pits"— the highly radioactive cores at the heart of modern nuclear weapons.
Plutonium, a dull gray metal that looks much like lead, does not exist in nature. During the Manhattan Project, it was created in nuclear reactors and used to build the bombs detonated at Trinity and dropped on Nagasaki, the second Japanese city to be destroyed during World War II by the newly invented atomic bombs.
Squeezed by the detonation of high explosives, plutonium is rapidly compressed, starting a nuclear chain reaction that releases its lethal explosive energy in an instant.
During the Cold War, the Rocky Flats factory outside Denver churned out many thousands of pits. Rocky Flats stopped that work in 1989 amid radioactive contamination and safety concerns. It was shortly before Gold and Wagner described their "virtual swords."
For the weapons complex of the 21st century, D'Agostino would like to see Rocky Flats' old job turned over to a concrete, bunkerlike laboratory on a wooded mesa in Los Alamos.
There, if D'Agostino and his successors have their way, crews a fraction of the size of the old Rocky Flats work force will maintain the capability to build as many plutonium pits as the nation needs.
But instead of the thousands produced at Rocky Flats, the new plan calls for a capability, if needed, of just 50 to 80 pits per year.
"This is not your father's Rocky Flats," said Joe Martz, a plutonium scientist who is a project director in Los Alamos' nuclear weapons program.
The idea is to create and demonstrate the ability at Los Alamos to make nuclear weapons if needed, rather than to flex our military muscle through the manufacturing of a large nuclear arsenal. "My work becomes the deterrent, not so much the products of my work," said Martz, an advocate of the virtual swords concept.
The proposal to designate Los Alamos as the pit production center was more than 15 years in coming.
In the early 1990s, with Rocky Flats closed, the federal government launched the first of a series of efforts to build a replacement plutonium factory.
From the beginning, there was widespread speculation that Los Alamos would get the job. It had long worked with plutonium, and had long made pits used in nuclear test blasts.
In a February 1990 visit to Los Alamos, then-Energy Secretary James Watkins dismissed the suggestions that Los Alamos would become the new Rocky Flats as "nonsense."
"We have no such plans," he told reporters.
It was a refrain repeated often over the years, as Watkins and his successors launched one effort after another to replace Rocky Flats with a brand new factory. But in each case, the process foundered. Congress expressed repeated skepticism about the need and the cost, and successive political leadership kept reconsidering the idea and launching planning efforts anew.
The ground started to shift in 1997, when federal officials designated Los Alamos as an "interim pit production site." They still pursued construction of a new factory, but recognized the need for some way to make a few pits in the meantime.
It took a decade, but last summer Los Alamos announced the production of the first "certified pit"— one that passed the exacting quality control standards necessary for the pit to be placed in a stockpiled U.S. nuclear warhead.
In the months since, the lab has completed nine more, a milestone that laid the groundwork for D'Agostino's announcement.
What has changed since the 1990s, when Watkins and his successors were so adamant that Los Alamos would not be the nation's plutonium production center?
The most important change is the slow realization that far fewer U.S. nuclear weapons are needed, said Raymond Jeanloz, a University of California professor who frequently serves as an advisory to the U.S. government on nuclear weapons issues.
A treaty signed in 2002 between the United States and Russia, its chief nuclear adversary, agreed to lower the U.S. stockpile to 1,700 to 2,200 nuclear weapons.
Global terrorism, not nuclear adversaries, has emerged since 2001 as the nation's primary security threat, Jeanloz noted.
Historic nuclear stockpile numbers are classified, but independent estimates put the Cold War peak at more than 30,000 and suggest we had as many as 15,000 nuclear weapons on hand when Rocky Flats stopped making new ones in 1989.
No new nuclear weapons have been built since then, and Congress last week killed the latest effort by the defense Establishment to design and build a new weapon to replace aging Cold War models.
That means the only plutonium manufacturing that will be needed is a small number of replacement parts for existing weapons, noted Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. That fact led Bingaman to offer cautious support for the idea of designating Los Alamos as the nation's primary pit manufacturing site. That would be consistent with the lab's longtime small-scale pit-making role, Bingaman said.
Martz, in an interview after D'Agostino's announcement, said the simple small-scale demonstration that the United States could make new nuclear weapons if required should be sufficient in the future.
"That's all you need," he said.