The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review did not flinch from reality.
With Russia and China pursuing entirely new nuclear capabilities and the ongoing negotiations to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, the geopolitical challenges are pressing.
There are challenges at home, too. Following the end of the Cold War, the infrastructure and capabilities needed to maintain a credible U.S. nuclear deterrent were neglected.
Staring down these realities, the 2018 NPR, released in February, set a clear course to modernize the nuclear security enterprise to face 21st century threats. The time is long past to provide the dedicated stewards of the U.S. nuclear deterrent with a modern, safe infrastructure and the critical tools needed to maintain it.
At the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, we are moving with a sense of urgency to implement this guidance. The imperative is unquestionable — to strengthen our nation through nuclear security.
Looking to 2019, the NNSA is about to mark a major milestone under budget and ahead of schedule by completing production of the W76-1 warhead for the U.S. Navy. This program prolongs the service life of the original W76-0 — a submarine-launched ballistic missile system first introduced into the stockpile in 1978 — from 20 to 60 years, providing four more decades of extended deterrence from the sea-based leg of our nuclear triad.
The success we’ve achieved on the W76-1 is a testament to our ability across the nuclear security enterprise to deliver on commitments to the Department of Defense, Congress and the American people. Yet, work on the W76 warhead will not cease with the completion of this life-extension program. The NPR called for a low-yield ballistic missile capability to allow for tailored deterrence in the face of evolving threats. And, with a proven path forward for modernization programs, we will continue to make progress on the B61-12, W80-4 and the W88 Alteration 370 in 2019.
However, our responsibilities also include ensuring that our current and future weapons and the nuclear security complex are flexible enough to adapt to future challenges. We are embarking on a much-needed course correction, and formulating a strategy to develop and maintain the full suite of capabilities to address an uncertain future.
The NPR states that there is “no margin for further delay” in recapitalizing the infrastructure to produce strategic materials and components, namely plutonium pits.
This year the Nuclear Weapons Council certified the NNSA’s recommended alternative for recapitalization of the plutonium pit production mission. The plan calls for repurposing the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX, at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and for maximizing pit production activities at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
In 2019, the NNSA will proceed with this strategy. We are conducting a safe, secure wind down of the MOX project and retaining as many talented employees as possible for the future pit production plant at the Savannah River Site. Meanwhile, at Los Alamos, we continue significant investments to update Cold War-era facilities so they have the resources and infrastructure necessary for this vital mission.
The U.S. nuclear deterrent is much more than warheads and bombs. The people and facilities underlying our weapons programs are crucial to a robust nonproliferation and arms control program. The technical expertise required for stockpile stewardship naturally lends itself to our second mission pillar — nonproliferation, counterproliferation and nuclear counterterrorism.
The NPR reaffirmed the need for effective measures to reduce global nuclear threats. NNSA experts work with our global partners to prevent the theft of nuclear and radioactive materials; improve capabilities to detect and deter proliferation; and reduce the availability of proliferation-sensitive equipment and technologies.
Our third mission pillar is powering the U.S. Navy, and the NNSA’s Naval Reactors unit continues its unblemished record of safe nuclear propulsion.
Naval Reactors is contributing its expertise to the U.S. Navy’s Columbia-class program. This next-generation, nuclear-powered submarine, as the NPR states, will ensure required sea-based deterrence capabilities for decades.
While our infrastructure must be revitalized, one key part of the nuclear security enterprise is as capable as it has ever been: our people.
We are at the highest level of activity since the Cold War and have launched an integrated plan to recruit the next generation of scientists, engineers and technicians for the enterprise.
As I traveled to our eight labs, plants and sites in 2018, I was left with one overwhelming impression: The NNSA is up to all the challenges laid out in the NPR and every charge we are given.
With professionalism and patriotism, the workforce at the NNSA makes me most confident about mission accomplishment in 2019 and beyond. Together, as a team, we are strengthening our nation through nuclear security.
Lisa Gordon-Hagerty is the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which falls under the purview of the U.S. Department of Energy.