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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

What's New in Nukes

Air Date: Week of April 14, 2006

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The Bush Administration has unveiled its plan to modernize the nation's nuclear arsenal. The plan, called "Complex 2030," would create a new industrial infrastructure to build the next generation of weapons. Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman goes over the details with host Steve Curwood.

Transcript

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

President Bush says the United States needs to modernize its strategic nuclear arsenal to make it more secure, reliable, and make the weapons better designed for the threats of the 21st century. Recently the administration unveiled a plan that would radically overhaul America’s nuclear bomb building infrastructure.

Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman has been investigating the plan, called “Complex 2030,” and he joins me now in the studio. Hi Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Hi Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, I thought we were supposed to be getting rid of nuclear weapons?

GELLERMAN: Well, we are. We’ve got about 7,700 nuclear weapons in the strategic arsenal. By treaty with Russia we’ve got to reduce those to 2,200, and we’re working right now dissembling them at a nuclear plant in Amarillo, Texas

CURWOOD: So why are we building new nuclear weapons?

GELLERMAN: Well you mentioned in your introduction that they want to make weapons that address the threats of the 21st century. The weapons that we are designing now were designed basically in 1960s, 70s, 80s. We haven’t produced a nuclear weapon in this country since 1989 – that’s 17 years ago – in plants that were basically constructed after World War II.

CURWOOD: So what kinds of new weapons do they want to build?

GELLERMAN: Something called the “reliable replacement warhead.” You’re gonna hear a lot about this in the near future I think, Steve. The weapons that they want to build are going to be a new generation of weapons. They’re going to be supposedly safer, that is, they’re harder to trigger accidentally. They’re easier to manufacture. They eliminate many of the materials that are environmentally dangerous – producing nuclear weapons is a very environmentally-unfriendly thing to do. And they want to ensure the reliability.

CURWOOD: And are there particular kinds that they want to make?

GELLERMAN: Well, yeah, things like “bunker-busters.” You know, right now in the arsenal they’ve got weapons that can burrow down about a hundred feet into the earth; they want to go a thousand feet.

CURWOOD: Now, speaking of reliability, the weapons we have now might not be reliable? The president could go to push that big button and nothing would happen?

GELLERMAN: Well, the National Nuclear Safety Administration, which oversees the industry which produces nuclear weapons in the United States, says no, the stockpile is safe and secure. But they say we need new facilities.

One of the issues is that, by treaty, in 1992 we stopped doing underground testing. So they really don’t know if these things are going to go bang when they push the button. The problem is the heart and the sole of these nuclear devices. They’re called plutonium pits. We haven’t made those in about 20 years. And some scientists believe they may be corroding and deteriorating and may not work.

CURWOOD: So the idea of this “Complex 2030” nuclear weapons building plan is to make them safer at home and more modern, then?

GELLERMAN: Absolutely. These are sweeping changes, Steve. There was an advisory board that was convened by the National Nuclear Safety Administration’s parent body, which is the Department of Energy. And this advisory board was praised by the administration for their recommendations, but they differed in one significant way.

CURWOOD: And what was that?

GELLERMAN: Well let me read from the report. It says, “we agree with much of what the task force recommends, except in one critical area: we simply cannot commit to a consolidated nuclear production center.”

What the task force recommended was putting everything in one place. Right now we’ve got an industry just spread over eight states, coast to coast, and the problem, especially after 9/11, is security. They’re taking this stuff and moving it all around, and it’s a weak link.

And I spoke to the chairman of this task force that made this recommendation to put everything in one place. His name is David Overskei.

OVERSKEI: These components, if they’re in disparate parts of the country, they have to be transported from one location to the other – at some point they need to be assembled. And if you have the production of the plutonium and the production of the uranium at the same location where the components are brought together and assembled, you’ve removed an enormous transportation and, therefor, security risk from the complex.

CURWOOD: Sounds to me like that would improve security. Why is the administration opposed to this?

GELLERMAN: Well they say they simply can’t afford it. It’s too much money. What they do agree with the task force is that there should be a consolidation of special nuclear materials, plutonium, which is dangerous and spread all over the country.

CURWOOD: So what does the administration propose doing with all the plutonium?

GELLERMAN: Well they want to put it in one place. They just haven’t decided which place they’re gonna put it. But there’s plutonium all over the country, Steve. You’ve got these eight sites, and most of them have plutonium. And that’s the big problem here.

For example, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It’s just east of San Francisco. There are seven million people living within 50 miles of the lab. The lab is certified to have 1,500 pounds of plutonium. They recently got permission from the government to double that. People in the communities are up in arms. They want that plutonium out. Now, the government says we’ll get it out, we’ll get it out by 2014. And Dr. Overskei says, Hey, why can’t it happen right now?

OVERSKEI: Admittedly, this is a very aggressive schedule, but the amount of material that needs to be moved is not such an amount that it requires six years for removal. As a matter of fact, if you look at their plan, all of the difficult issues are moved off to another administration. It’s a political calculus.

CURWOOD: Bruce, what does Congress say about this plan? Particularly plutonium?

GELLERMAN: Well the administration wants to start putting together new plutonium pits – 125 plutonium pits a year – and Congress so far has been saying no way.

There’s an interesting footnote to this story, Steve. The Secretary of Energy’s advisory board that created the task force that Dr. Overskei chaired was just disbanded. The secretary says he doesn’t need it, he knows what direction to take the department in. And it’s interesting, the advisory board was in business since the Carter administration, more than 30 years ago, and it was designed to deal with politically charged and technically challenging issues just like this one.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman, thanks so much.

GELLERMAN: You’re welcome.

 

Links

National Nuclear Security Administraon – to read Defense Program Testimony

 

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