An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the U.S. Navy's Ohio-class fleet ballistic-missile submarine USS Nevada (SSBN 733) off the coast of Southern California in March 2011. (U.S. Navy)
In about five years, every scientist with experience designing and testing nuclear weapons will have retired from the U.S. government.
Thomas D’Agostino, the undersecretary for nuclear security and the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), said the number of nuclear scientists with weapons testing experience is somewhere in the mid- to low teens.
The definition he uses for test experience is “someone who’s had a key hand in the design of a warhead that’s in the existing stockpile and who was responsible for that particular design when it was tested back in the early 1990s.”
“Last year, it was in the 17 to 18 range, but I’ve got to believe it’s five fewer than that now,” he said at a March 8 breakfast with reporters.
“Five years from now, they will no longer be active employees of our laboratories.”
For some, this is cause for hand-wringing. For others, it’s just the inevitable outcome of a longstanding U.S. policy of not conducting nuclear weapons testing. The U.S. last conducted an explosive nuclear weapons test in 1992.
“As long as it is the policy of the United States — and it has been now for four successive administrations, two from each party — not to test, that is inevitable. So the question becomes: What do you do about it?” said Linton Brooks, a former ambassador and administrator of the NNSA at the Energy Department.
For some, the answer is the resumption of nuclear weapons tests or designing and building a new nuclear weapon.
However, the Defense Department’s new strategic guidance, released in January, made clear that nuclear weapons are playing a shrinking role in U.S. national security strategy.
“In the wake of the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons have occupied a less and less prominent part of our defense and national security strategy, rightly so,” Michèle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, said March 6 at the Stimson Center in Washington.
The Obama administration has said it would like to pursue new disarmament talks with Russia. It is also pushing for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, which was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 and then defeated in the Senate in 1999.
Some see this move toward a smaller nuclear force, plus President Barack Obama’s stated desire for a nuclear weapons-free world, as being in competition with the administration’s other policy goal of maintaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear weapons stockpile in the near term.
Sometimes these policies are in conflict, John Foster, former director of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, said April 10 at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
The challenge these policies create can be seen at the laboratory level, where the government continues to try to attract and retain the best new talent in a field that it hopes will one day disappear.
Meanwhile, the effort to keep young scientists engaged at the national laboratories is made more difficult by recent funding cuts tied to deficit-reduction efforts.
Last month, the Los Alamos National Laboratory announced that 557 of its employees had volunteered to take buyouts to help deal with budget cuts.
The lab has a permanent workforce of 7,600.
The Testing Question
“If the administration has said they want to abandon testing, then certainly they have no interest in nurturing the knowledge base that would support it,” Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said in a March 21 interview. He serves as the chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.
Some believe the U.S. should reserve the right to test its nuclear weapons not only to keep unique scientific and engineering skills alive, but also because the weapons may require it.
By not testing, “we may be running serious risks and not know it,” Foster said.
However, a new report from the National Academy of Sciences says the U.S. is able to maintain a safe and effective nuclear weapons stockpile without testing.
Brooks served on the committee that wrote the report.
“The report focuses on how you maintain that knowledge and capability given that the actuarial tables make it certain that there will be no one left who actually did a test,” he said in an April 10 phone call with reporters.
Sustaining a high quality workforce remains one of the most important aspects of maintaining a safe, effective nuclear deterrent, the report says.
“At the laboratories, that means continuing to recruit the best people, but it also means giving them real projects that will develop their skills,” Brooks said. “Things like the attempt to design a reliable replacement warhead — whatever the merits of that as a policy decision — it got new designers working with old designers on the process of how you design.”
Much of the scientific work being done on the weapons is called “surveillance,” performing routine checkups on the weapons to make sure the components are still safe and functioning.
“If it were a car, it would be the equivalent of checking to see if the batteries are good, the fan belt works,” D’Agostino said.
Advocates of testing say surveillance is not reassurance enough that the warheads, which experience natural degradation over time, are still working.
D’Agostino disagrees. “I would say, based on the information that I review and the information that the laboratory directors review, that we have a much better understanding of what’s going on inside our stockpile now than we ever did during the days of underground testing. We can now explain phenomena that we never could back then.”
However, things are constantly changing, he said, which is why it’s important to continue to develop scientific expertise.
“There are always going to be people who say, ‘We have to test,’” D’Agostino said. “In my tenure in this job and however long it’s going to be out into the future, I’m supremely confident that we do not need to test a warhead.”
Over the past several years, the government has taken steps to expand the work of the laboratories to include projects beyond the not very glamorous, but immensely important, surveillance work.
The report from the National Academy of Sciences cited a 2008 Defense Science Board study that found morale was low at the laboratories due to declines in funding and the lack of a clear, high-level government affirmation of the importance of their mission.
Maintaining a safe and effective nuclear weapons stockpile is mostly an issue of resources, Brooks said. This means continued funding to recruit and maintain a high-quality workforce, repairing aging infrastructure, and investing in needed technologies, especially satellites for international monitoring.
To boost morale and to attract the best talent, the laboratories need to get scientists involved in work on nonproliferation, nuclear threat reduction, nuclear forensics and intelligence, especially of foreign nuclear programs, the National Academy of Sciences committee said.
The recommendation echoes a similar one made by the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, which released its findings in a May 2009 report.
The commission, which was chaired by former Defense Secretary William Perry and vice chaired by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, concluded that the intellectual infrastructure was in “serious trouble” and that steps were required to address the situation.
“The laboratories must be able to provide challenging research on national problems,” the report said. In the weapons area, this should include projects that include design skills.
Turner, an advocate of increased spending on nuclear weapons, agreed. “There needs to be a pursuit of knowledge that’s actually not tied to any particular weapons systems.”
For him, it’s important to sustain the knowledge base that could support “new items and new policy directives” if there is a change in political leadership.
However, for some, the problem is an existential one that requires more than just resources to solve.
“The best way to manage it is to ensure that as the inevitable reduction in the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy continues, we should maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal, but also begin transitioning the work of the labs to more pressing 21st-century national security applications,” said Kingston Reif, director of nuclear nonproliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.