Dec 19, 2007
Federal officials unveiled a sweeping proposal Tuesday to create a smaller U.S. nuclear weapons complex, with Los Alamos getting the critical job of manufacturing and maintaining plutonium bomb parts.
The plan is a response to two realities: a need for fewer U.S. nuclear weapons and an unwillingness on the part of Congress to fund the old Cold War nuclear weapons complex.
Rather than maintaining a large arsenal, the new smaller complex will instead maintain the capability to build new warheads if needed to counter new international threats, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration said during a news conference.
The plan means fewer workers will be needed to maintain the arsenal, with the possibility that up to 2,000 jobs could be lost at New Mexico's nuclear weapons laboratories over the next decade.
The plan marks the abandonment of a dream that weapons program managers have unsuccessfully pursued for nearly two decades— a major new nuclear weapons manufacturing factory.
Colorado's Rocky Flats, where plutonium bomb parts were once made, closed in 1989 because of safety and environmental problems. Efforts have been under way since on a variety of proposals to build a large new replacement factory.
The more modest idea will use existing nuclear weapons labs and plants to build and maintain a smaller U.S. arsenal.
For Los Alamos, that means making as many as 80 plutonium bomb cores per year in existing buildings and in a new plutonium laboratory being built to support the work.
The plan takes advantage of work done at Los Alamos since the late 1990s to build small numbers of nuclear bomb parts as an interim solution to the problem posed by lack of a Rocky Flats replacement. Los Alamos now builds 10 weapon cores per year.
For Sandia National Laboratories, the plan means continued design and some manufacturing of nuclear bomb parts. Sandia would no longer host large new nuclear weapons supercomputers, a role it has held for decades.
For each lab, the changes mean "up to 20 percent fewer staff supporting nuclear weapon activities" over the next decade, according to fact sheets distributed by the NNSA on Monday. Officials could not be more specific about the job losses.
But with more than 10,000 people employed in the nuclear weapons program across the two labs, the fact sheets suggest the possibility that up to 2,000 jobs could be lost in New Mexico.
Officials at the labs and the NNSA said any job reductions likely could be made through retirements and voluntary departures.
The need for a U.S. nuclear arsenal has not gone away, but the threats for which the nation needs nuclear capabilities have changed, NNSA chief Thomas D'Agostino said at a news conference Tuesday.
"The U.S. must maintain a strategic deterrent for the foreseeable future," he said.
New nuclear requirements include the threat posed by proliferation.
"We believe these requirements can be met with fewer nuclear weapons and a smaller nuclear weapons complex to support them," D'Agostino said.
The plan was enthusiastically received at Los Alamos.
"This shows confidence in Los Alamos' ability to deliver," said Joe Martz, a plutonium scientist who is a project director in the lab's nuclear weapons program.
Some in and around Los Alamos have expressed fears that weapons manufacturing work would lead to a decline in the quality of science at Los Alamos, but Martz dismissed the claim.
"Science and manufacturing can go hand in hand when well- managed," Martz said.
New Mexico elected officials were not surprised by the proposal, which has been widely discussed within official Washington for weeks.
"It should come as no surprise that some of the nuclear weapons programs at New Mexico's laboratories would experience cuts," Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said in a statement. "But that certainly doesn't mean that Sandia and Los Alamos national labs will become less important to our country."
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., called the plan "an affirmation of the direction the labs have been moving in recent years."