The Obama Administration and Nuclear Weapons Policy

The fledgling Obama Administration has already made two attempts to change things in the nation's troubled nuclear weapons establishment. The week following the Inauguration, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) told the Departments of Energy and Defense to assess the pros and cons of taking the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which manages the weapons complex, out of the Energy Department and placing it in the Department of Defense. The Administration aims to release the Energy Department from the burden of nuclear weapons, which has lately taken up as much as 70% of its budget, and free it to focus on its real mission, producing power for civilian uses in an era of accelerating climate change. The Administration's proposal appears to be stillborn because the Pentagon does not want to be saddled with the mismanaged weapons bureaucracy and because no one in Congress is promoting it. Indeed, Jeff Bingaman, the powerful senior Senator from New Mexico, where two of the major weapons labs are located, said that he would fight the project "tooth and nail." The Administration has addressed another problem as well -- but this one may very well come back. The nuclear weapons establishment has been pushing something called the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), a $100 billion program to replace the nuclear weapons now in the nation's stockpile with a newly designed warhead supposedly more reliable than the older models we depend on now. The National Academy of Sciences and the Jasons, a group of highly regarded scientific advisers to the government, have said the new warhead is not needed, and President Obama has said that he does not want to produce any new nuclear weapons. Although the RRW had earlier been rejected twice by a Congressional appropriations committee, it still was backed by the Energy Department and Defense Secretary Gates. But in early February OMB informed the Defense Department that the RRW program had been cancelled "both explicitly and implicitly." The President's budget for FY 2010 contains no appropriation for the RRW, and similarly Congress' spending bills for 2009 and 2010 likewise omits any money for the warhead. But the story may not have ended there. The push to build the RRW comes from the Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia labs, where weapons designers want something new and interesting to work on, and from the entrenched weapons bureaucracy, which has powerful supporters in Congress. This year or next, the Administration will be seeking ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which Congress rejected in 1999. If the vote were held today, the treaty would probably receive 60 votes, but ratification requires 67, or two-thirds of the Senate. When the treaty comes up again, conservatives, led by right-wing Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona, are likely to require a method of replacing older weapons with newer ones as the price of a yea vote. At that point the RRW, dressed up in another misleading name, may very well make a comeback.

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