Respond to this Article March 2006

Nuclear Waste

Our far-flung nuclear weapons factories haven't built a bomb since 1992. One lone Republican wants to shut them down.

By Zachary Roth

In 1942, the United States government began creating a secret city. On 59,000 acres in the hills of eastern Tennessee, it built a complex--one of three nationwide--dedicated to the production of materials for an atomic weapon. From the start, the very existence of the new city, named Oak Ridge after a nearby mountain ridge, was shrouded in mystery. Though at its peak of production during World War II, Oak Ridge used one-seventh of all the electricity produced in the United States and had a population of 75,000--making it the fifth largest city in Tennessee--it didn't appear on maps until 1949.

Residents were required to wear identification badges whenever they went out of the house, and the Oak Ridge high school football team played only road games. But there was good reason for the clandestine measures: By late 1943, Oak Ridge's Y-12 plant was using electromagnetism to create the highly enriched uranium that would be used in the "Little Boy" atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, helping to bring the war to an end.

For Oak Ridge, those were the glory days, and the city works hard to keep their memory alive. A museum in town educates a few stray tourists on Oak Ridge's starring role in the development of the bomb. Visitors to the complex are given a CD-ROM--"Discover World War Two's Secret City"--whose cover shows Oak Ridgers excitedly displaying newspapers that hail the end of the war. Last June, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the event, Oak Ridge held a "Secret City Festival," which featured, among other attractions, the opening to the public of Y-12's Beta-3 building, which had been used during the war to separate isotopes, and which still contains crates bearing the date of the plant's first year in operation. "Looks just like it did in 1943," says Bill Wilburn, the public relations representative for BWXT, a private contractor that runs Y-12, as we look down on Beta-3 from a nearby ridge. Oak Ridge's starring role in history continued into the Cold War, when the arms race with the Soviet Union required rapid weapons production. Indeed, driving around the vast facility with the flacks felt vaguely like being in one of those military movies from the 1950s. "It's like stepping back into history," notes Steve Wyatt, Y-12's public affairs manager.

Unfortunately, history is about the only thing going for Y-12 these days. The United States hasn't built a new nuclear weapon since the early '90s, and that's left the weapons plant's 6,000 employees with little to do. Today, they are literally moving material from one spot to another, spending around $300 million to transfer Y-12's store of radioactive metal from six separate on-site locations to one more modern and secure facility, currently under construction. Y-12 lists its main role as ensuring that the components used in our existing stockpile of weapons remain safe and reliable--an important task, to be sure, but not one capable of providing a long-term mission for Y-12.

Even the plant's physical appearance suggests its better days are behind it. An unmistakable air of ennui and decay hangs about the place. A few solitary workers shuffle from one building to another. Many of the original structures--their blocky, red-brick style and low ceilings characteristic of 1940s government architecture--remain in use, despite the appearance of decay. "It's a lot of old facilities, no question," says Wyatt.

Y-12's fusty aura is indicative of a broader problem. Our nuclear weapons complex was designed for the needs of a different age, and has struggled to reinvent itself for the 21st century. Almost 20 years after we built our last new nuclear weapon, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy with a budget of $9 billion per year, continues to operate eight separate facilities, employing over 36,000 people, and offering an unnecessarily large number of targets to terrorists. Indeed, in 2005, the federal government spent one and a half times as much on our weapons complex, adjusted for inflation, as our average annual spending during the Cold War, for a greatly reduced set of activities. In short, our nuclear weapons complex is unsafe, costly, inefficient, and largely without purpose.

Last summer, a congressionally-mandated report produced by a blue-ribbon task force of experts found that reducing the number of sites we operate would save money, improve security, and make the complex better able to produce the next generation of nuclear weapons the United States may someday need. It was the kind of report you might think elected officials would have seized on. After all, at the time, the Bush White House and GOP congressional leaders were in tense negotiations over how to reduce the president's massive budget deficit. Desperate congressional leaders were targeting student loans, Medicaid--anything they could think of to save precious dollars and restore their party's reputation as the standard-bearer of small government. The news, then, that by shuttering dilapidated and largely redundant government facilities, they could save billions, while making Americans safer against a terrorist attack, ought to have been heralded. Indeed, at a similar moment of fiscal panic during the 1990s, Congress and the Clinton White House agreed to help the Defense Department adapt to the post-Cold War world by creating an independent commission to recommend the closing of obsolete military bases. But this time, Congress and the administration reacted to the DOE weapons complex report with studied indifference, and in some cases, outright hostility.

Sitting ducks

"I can't emphasize enough the degree to which these facilities are archaic," says David Overskei, who headed the task force that looked at restructuring the complex. At Y-12, according to a manager at another facility, workers at one point had to wear hard hats indoors because of the risk of pieces of the ceiling becoming dislodged. His own site, too, he adds, is "falling apart.... There's buildings that wouldn't pass any building code known to man."

It's not surprising that many of the facilities are degrading. Like their counterparts in the former Soviet Union, America's nuclear weapons sites were largely designed and built half a century ago for a war that has long ended. Elected officials don't have the incentive to spend the vast sums it would take to properly maintain these facilities. Yet neither do they have the political courage to pull the fiscal plug entirely on individual sites, and put tens of thousands of employees out of work.

The fact that the complex consists of eight separate sites in seven states, all of them represented by lawmakers dedicated to protect those jobs, makes the job of shutting them down even tougher. There are two major design labs, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.; and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. There are also six other sites--located, in addition to Oak Ridge, in Albuquerque, N.M.; southern Nevada; Amarillo, Texas; Kansas City, Mo.; and near Aiken, S.C.--which handle various parts of the design, production, testing, maintenance, and safeguarding of our weapons stockpile and its components.

In the early years, there were good reasons to disperse the complex around the country and to create separate facilities for different functions. Doing so helped defend against espionage and fostered a spirit of healthy competition. The approach worked brilliantly during the race for an atomic weapon to defeat Hitler and Hirohito, as well as for much of the Cold War that followed when the U.S. arms buildup successfully deterred the Russians and helped keep the peace (see "Labs Behaving Badly.")

But once the Soviet Union fell, the far-flung complex lost its primary raison d'etre--though a number of vital tasks remain. Maintaining the stockpile requires small-scale production of new weapons parts, as the existing parts age and decay. And new threats may well require us to build a whole new generation of weapons--with modern capabilities--in the not-too-distant future. We also need to protect our existing stockpile of almost 10,000 weapons--as well as the highly radioactive "special nuclear material" used in their creation--from falling into the wrong hands. And our weapons labs house the advanced nuclear science research that is crucial to ensuring that the United States retains its competitive edge in the field, and to the long-term success of the weapons program.

But with no ongoing production of new weapons, and, after September 11, 2001, with nuclear terrorism a newly-urgent threat, there is now little reason to have numerous separate sites scattered across the country. For one thing, the dispersal of sites significantly compromises nuclear security. There is no realistic chance of terrorists stealing a prefabricated nuclear weapon from any domestic site, but another alarming possibility has security experts worried. Six of the eight NNSA-run sites (the exceptions are the Kansas City site, which is little more than a warehouse that makes electronic components, and Savannah River in South Carolina) contain enough special nuclear material--most dangerously, weapons-grade uranium--to allow for the creation of an Improvised Nuclear Device (IND), a crude nuclear explosive that could potentially be detonated inside a weapons facility within minutes. By simply dropping a 100-pound mass of highly enriched uranium onto another similar mass from a height of about six feet, terrorists could create a nuclear reaction that would produce a blast of about 5-10 kilotons--the blast from the Hiroshima atomic bomb was 15 kilotons. Such an explosion would kill anyone within 2 kilometers--which at some facilities could mean tens of thousands of people--according to Frank Von Hippel, a physicist and nuclear expert at Princeton University.

Currently, a scenario in which terrorists could successfully storm a facility, gain access to the nuclear materials, and have enough time to set off an IND appears highly unlikely, but not impossible. And because the consequences would be so catastrophically high, it's a scenario that security experts take seriously. Matthew Bunn, who directs the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, calls it "a very genuine concern."

The problem is made scarier still by the fact that many of our current facilities are simply in poor geographic locations for storing nuclear materials in a post-9/11 world. At Livermore, for instance, the exurban fringe of the Bay Area has spread so far east since the 1950s that there are now homes directly across the street from the lab's fence line, and only 800 yards from the facility's Superblock, which houses its store of plutonium. That prevents some guards from carrying the kind of powerful automatic weapons wielded by their counterparts at other sites, and also makes the potential death toll in the event of a successful attack even higher.

The Y-12 plant, meanwhile, sits in a valley between two high ridges. Security experts agree that the location makes the complex vulnerable to an attack that uses snipers on the higher ground to take out security guards, allowing others at ground level to gain access to the nuclear material contained in the facility.

Then there's the Pantex site in Amarillo, Texas. It's located directly beside the local airport, greatly increasing the chances of a plane--whether through terrorism or an accident--crashing into facilities that contain nuclear materials. (This is perhaps not as unlikely as it sounds. A woman who lived near Pantex for many years told me that guards once admitted they'd received a report of a plane crashing inside the facility but couldn't locate it, and asked for her help.)

As the report by Overskei's task force dryly put it, "Currently, the [Livermore], [Los Alamos], Y-12, and Pantex sites are sufficiently close to residential and commercial structures such that any partially successful terrorist attack on these sites may cause collateral damage to the surrounding civilian population and associated public and private assets."

Even leaving geographical and land-use issues aside, the level of security at our nuclear facilities is inadequate. In 2003, a one-ton truck crashed through the security fence at Livermore, and traveled several hundred yards inside the facility before being stopped by security guards. A report released soon after 9/11 by the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group in consultation with federal government security experts, concluded: "The Department of Energy is failing to adequately protect the American public from the possibility of a terrorist attack on one of its nuclear weapons facilities. Guards at the facilities are poorly equipped, spread thin, and lack training needed to defend against a real terrorist attack." The report also noted that guards failed more than 50 percent of the time to protect against attacks by mock-terrorists armed with readily available weapons and explosives. Little progress has been made in the last four-plus years: Another report, produced for NNSA by a team led by retired admiral Richard Mies and released in May of last year confirmed that even almost four years after 9/11, "The NNSA enterprise lacks a comprehensive strategic security plan."

There is general agreement that consolidating all special nuclear material into one well-guarded site would make us significantly safer. Even Spencer Abraham, then the secretary of energy, conceded the risk inherent in having special nuclear material spread across the country, declaring in a May 2004 speech that, because of security concerns, "we need to…reduce the number of sites with special nuclear material to the absolute minimum, consistent with carrying out our missions."

Doing so would also save money. For good reason, any site that contains weapons-quantities of nuclear materials --which could be as little as 5 pounds--must receive high-level protection. That means storing nuclear materials at six sites could cost, in effect, six times as much as storing them all at one. And since 9/11 --when it became clear that terrorists might be willing to kill themselves in the course of an attack--facilities have had to devise a plan to handle each and every new scenario that security experts imagine terrorists might attempt. As a result, NNSA's security costs have skyrocketed from $885 million in the year before 9/11, to over $1.4 billion in 2005.

Machine politics

But aside from the issues of cost and security, the labs suffer from a more existential problem--a lack of purpose. Research, storage, maintenance, and security are important tasks, but NNSA has yet to give the labs a long-term, defining mission since we tested our last new weapons in 1992. That's left many weapons scientists, particularly at Los Alamos and Livermore, in a state of anxiety over the future of their jobs. They've reacted by turning themselves into experts on the federal government's grant-making process, and applying for funding for new projects and technologies--some only tangentially related to weapons design. For its part, the Department of Energy--as well as other agencies that fund some projects, like the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security--is inclined to grant these requests, recognizing the need to keep the scientists at their jobs and to keep federal dollars flowing to the labs, should their weapons-design skills be needed in the future.

Many of these new projects have come about over the last decade. When the Clinton administration agreed to stop testing nuclear weapons in 1993, it entered into a bargain with the labs, which feared that the end of nuclear production and testing could make them redundant. Without support from the labs, the administration knew that the test ban would never get through Congress. So the lab directors agreed to publicly support the ban, in return for receiving a slew of new technology that they said was needed to assure the ongoing safety of the stockpile in the absence of testing. Livermore, for instance, received the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a facility that fires laser beams at radioactive hydrogen fuel pellets, in order to study the effects of a nuclear fusion explosion. Los Alamos, for its part, got the Dual Access Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DARHT), which uses giant x-ray machines to create images of mock nuclear weapons.

But as it's turned out, the technology required for virtual testing costs more, not less, than actual testing. The labs almost certainly undersold the cost of many of the new machines. The NIF, for instance, was estimated at $677 million in 1993. In 1997, DOE requested from Congress $1.2 billion for construction, promising there would be no further increases. Four years later, the General Accounting Office (GAO) estimated the NIF's construction price tag to be $4.2 billion. And an independent analysis in the same year put the total cost of constructing and operating the NIF for 30 years--as NNSA intends--at $32.4 billion. "DOE lied to me," said an outraged Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on the floor of the Senate in September 2000. "They sold me a bill of goods and I am not happy about it." Steven Schwartz, a nuclear expert who formerly edited the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and has been a Brookings Institution scholar, argues, only semi-facetiously, that if we really want to save money, we should resume full-scale testing and production of weapons.

These costs might be acceptable if we knew what we were getting for our money. But because facilities like the NIF are designed more to increase our overall understanding of nuclear-weapons science than to perform specific tests, it's difficult for non-scientists to assess their utility. That makes it hard for outside overseers like Congress to oppose requests for new technology. When Ph.D. physicists say they need another machine to assure the safety of our weapons stockpile, most lawmakers are inclined to trust them. Indeed, it's now all but impossible for Congress to get an independent viewpoint on questions that require technical and scientific expertise: Until 1995, members could have consulted the federal Office of Technology Assessment. But in that year, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich led an effort that abolished the agency.

Still, at least machines like the NIF and the DAHRT can be said to advance the long-term mission of our nuclear program. Some lab scientists have received grants to fund projects with no clear relation to weapons production, whatsoever. Grant Heffelfinger, a weapons scientist at Sandia, says he's working on sequencing proteins for microbes. Other scientists have studied the human genome, and global warming.

It's not that the work isn't worthwhile--few scientific issues are more urgent than global warming, after all. But it doesn't make sense for this work to be done by our nuclear facilities, rather than by the many advanced scientific agencies--like the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association, and the Scripps Institute--run or funded by the federal government. "I would never have picked Los Alamos or Sandia or Livermore to get involved with the genome," says Overskei. "It was make-work from the DOE…not based on inherent ability or expertise." Peter Stockton, a nuclear expert who was a top aide to energy secretary Bill Richardson during the '90's and now works for the Project on Government Oversight, agrees that the work is designed mainly for "keeping these guys busy." Our weapons complex, then, is getting further and further from its core mission. Adds Overskei: "The question becomes, at what point do you lose your focus?"

Hobson's choice

One of the few people in Washington who wants to fix the problems of our nuclear weapons complex is David Hobson, a little-known Republican congressman from Ohio who chairs the House Energy and Water subcommittee that oversees NNSA and the complex. Hobson, a slight, bespectacled, and resolutely unglamorous man, has the aw-shucks demeanor of the Midwestern small business-owner he once was. He says "Warshington" for Washington and makes little jokes about the French, and about the officiousness of the bureaucrats who brief him. "I wasted a whole day at Stratcomm," he said --referring to the Pentagon's Strategic Command office--during a speech at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal Washington think tank, last December. "Too many flip-charts. I almost left."

But Hobson has used his regular-guy persona--and his reputation as a fiscal conservative--to push for a safer, more modern, more efficient, less expensive complex. He has publicly accused the labs of running "jobs-preservation programs" for scientists. In the process, he has turned himself into public enemy number one at the labs. In his speech at CAP, Hobson recounted how, when he visited one facility recently, he caught sight of a list headed "Challenges." One item was the single word "Hobson."

After assuming the chairmanship of the subcommittee in 2003, Hobson and his staff became concerned that Y-12's plan to build a new, above-ground storage facility for its special nuclear materials was inadequate for the heightened-threat environment of the post 9/11 world. Instead of spending hundreds of millions to move the plant's SNM from six separate on-site locations to one, they thought, why not take a wide-angle look at our entire weapons complex, and consider consolidating all the SNM currently spread across the complex into one new, below-ground location? To that end, Hobson browbeat Abraham, then the secretary of energy, into agreeing to produce a report that would examine complex-wide consolidation.

The Overskei report--also known as the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (or SEAB) report--was produced by a task force of distinguished nuclear, scientific, engineering, and management experts, reporting directly to the secretary of energy. When it came out last July, 16 months after Abraham's appearance before the subcommittee, the report called the current weapons complex "neither robust, nor agile, nor responsive, with little evidence of a master plan." It recommended consolidating all special nuclear material into one location, as a way to improve security and cut costs. That essentially meant consolidating the complex's entire production capability--currently spread across six sites--into one. Though the report didn't explicitly say so, the clear implication of its recommendations was that some of the production sites --most likely Y-12 at Oak Ridge, Kansas City, and ultimately Pantex, should be shuttered entirely.

The report estimated that consolidation would likely save around $25 billion between now and 2030. Each year that consolidation is postponed would reduce savings by $2 billion. Consolidation would also improve the responsiveness, speed, and quality of the entire production process, the panel found. That's partly because being dispersed around the country makes it difficult to effectively integrate the various facets of the production process. It's also because the existing production sites, built in the '40s and '50s, are too old to quickly and efficiently produce weapons for the 21st century. A new production facility with state-of-the-art technology would reduce delays and re-work; cut environmental pollution, provide a safer work environment; and leave the complex less dependent on the highly-trained, aging workforce it currently employs. Says Don Trost, a member of Overskei's task force and a vice president of Techsource, a science and engineering consulting firm: "You put all these benefits together, and if this were your company, and it were your dollars being invested --which frankly it is, my friend--you'd say: 'no-brainer.'"

BRAC to the future

Hobson said immediately that he agreed with the Overskei report "100 percent." But he was an army of one. The press virtually ignored it. Congress, NNSA, DOE, and the White House spent the next six months doing virtually nothing to put its recommendations into practice. And one powerful lawmaker tried to have the report taken out back and shot.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) chairs the Senate energy committee, which oversees the nuclear complex. It's a convenient job for the senior senator from New Mexico because that state has more federal government employees, per capita, than any other in the union; and most of those employees work at New Mexico's two weapons labs, Los Alamos and Sandia. A wily veteran of the appropriations process, Domenici has, during the 11 years of his committee chairmanship, structured that appropriations process so as to maximize funding for the complex --and particularly for his state's facilities. He fought hard, for instance, to bring to Sandia the Microsystems and Engineering Sciences Applications (MESA) program, which manufactures computer-chip scale devices. "There's a number of programs that are doing quite well in the state of New Mexico," says Overskei. "Non-nuclear projects. But they still went into his facilities."

Domenici opposed the Overskei report from the start. "While there is always room for improvement, I believe our labs are doing good work, and I do not think we should rush into any quick fixes," he said in a statement after the report was released. He then inserted language in his committee report barring the use of funds to implement any of the report's recommendations. Though that language was ultimately struck in conference, it conveyed the firmness of Domenici's opposition to reform and set the tone for the conference negotiations. When all was said and done, Congress' budget for the fiscal year 2006 contained just $5 million to study consolidation.

Domenici is not acting entirely alone in Congress-- many members of the New Mexico delegation have made continued funding for the labs a life-or-death issue. When the House Armed Services committee also suggested studying consolidation in 2002, it was forced to drop the idea amid unbending opposition from one of its members, Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.).

To some observers, there's more than a little irony in the sight of conservative politicians going to the mat to protect government jobs. Says one high-ranking nuclear facility manager: "They're all red states who don't like government. But you try touching one of their complexes, saying 'this thing is really irrelevant and we should close it down,' and these guys sound like bleeding heart liberals: 'Don't you dare touch one of our jobs.'"

Such resistance can be overcome by a president committed to reform--especially if that president is of the same party as those in control of Congress. But President Bush's level of interest in grappling with the problems of our weapons complex is reflected by the fact that he has not chosen to appoint to the National Security Council any staff members with a true base of knowledge and interest in the issue. "I've met with NSC on several occasions," says Stockton, the former DOE official, "and they don't even know what the hell a weapons complex is."

Some presidents have managed DOE by vesting authority in strong energy secretaries, as Clinton did with the dynamic and high-profile Bill Richardson. Bush hasn't chosen to do that, either. (Quick: can you name the current Secretary of Energy? *)

The Department of Energy is also hampered by the longstanding culture of independence at the labs, which essentially allows each individual site to run itself. Former Los Alamos director Pete Nanos has spoken of a "cowboy culture," in which weapons scientists feel free to thumb their noses at Washington's efforts to exert control. In 2004, some Los Alamos scientists began sporting a bumper sticker on their cars bearing the words "Striving for a Work-Free Safe Zone." The message was a sarcastic rebuke to lab directors, whose new safety-conscious approach--the result of pressure from DOE officials in Washington--was, the scientists felt, short-changing scientific research. Stockton says that in his experience as a top DOE official, when you tell employees at the facilities, "we want you to do this, they pretty much give you the finger, saying 'we be here before you, we be here after you, and fuck you while you're here.'"

But even if DOE were able to rein in the labs, it's by no means certain that it would want to. In the 1990s, Congress was able to create the Base Realignment and Closure Commission to shut down military bases because the Defense Department supported the move. Officials understood that fewer bases around the country meant more resources and funding for their preferred projects. But DOE has much less influence in Congress than does the Pentagon, so there's no guarantee that money no longer given to the weapons complex would go to other departmental projects. Just as important, DOE simply doesn't do much aside from manage our weapons complex. It doesn't actually produce energy--it merely subsidizes private producers. In fact, NNSA represents almost 40 percent of the Energy Department's annual budget, and provides much of its sense of departmental mission. A diminished complex means a diminished DOE.

Political pressure for reform, then, is almost surely not going to come from DOE--at least with the way the department is currently structured. The only way to create that pressure is to radically change the structure. One idea would be to remove NNSA from DOE's (theoretical) control and instead place it under the more powerful Defense Department, which has shown its willingness to fight hard for the closing of unnecessary facilities it controls. There's virtually no will, however, in the Pentagon or in Congress, to push for such a move.

Another idea --one that might appeal to Democrats looking for a campaign issue--would be to give the Energy Department a new mission. Ramp up its authority to fund alternative energy experiments, but require that the funds come from more efficient management of the weapons labs. The only way to extract the necessary billions, of course, would be to close extraneous nuclear facilities.

The need to find alternatives to Middle Eastern oil is arguably the greatest national security challenge of the current era, just as deterring Soviet communism was half a century ago. How fitting it would be if the great weapons facilities that so vitally served the nation in the past could be restructured to serve the future as well.

* Answer: Samuel W. Bodman

--Additional reporting by Sam Jaffe

** See sidebar "America's bomb-making process, brought to you by Rube Goldberg."

Zachary Roth is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


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