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Nuclear Agency Officials Defend Rate of Warhead Dismantlement

By Martin Matishak

Global Security Newswire

(Feb. 22) -U.S. officials said a proposed funding cut for the country's nuclear-weapon dismantlement program would not undermine plans to disassemble and dispose of nuclear weapons such as the B-53 bomb, shown above (U.S. Air Force photo). (Feb. 22) -U.S. officials said a proposed funding cut for the country's nuclear-weapon dismantlement program would not undermine plans to disassemble and dispose of nuclear weapons such as the B-53 bomb, shown above (U.S. Air Force photo).

WASHINGTON -- Officials who oversee the U.S. nuclear complex recently defended the present rate of warhead dismantlement, saying that such work is time intensive and even as funding levels drop that they have all the resources required to do the job (see GSN, Feb. 19).

The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration is "on track to meet our dismantlement commitments" regardless of a proposed $38 million cut for nuclear-weapon dismantlement and disposition in fiscal 2011, said NNSA Principal Assistant Deputy Administrator Brig. Gen. Garrett Harencak during the agency's budget rollout earlier this month.

The exact number of warheads the agency intends to take apart in the next budget year is classified, but Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said the United States dismantles roughly 260 weapons each year.

The nuclear agency, a semiautonomous branch of the Energy Department, is slated to receive a 13.4-percent funding hike to $11.2 billion in the next budget cycle, according to the White House spending request unveiled Feb. 1 (see GSN, Feb. 2). That is a greater percentage increase than planned for any other government agency.

Yet despite the proposed boost the agency's Weapons Dismantlement and Disposition program -- intended to eliminate retired weapons and their components and to reduce the security and maintenance burden of legacy warheads and bombs -- would shrink from slightly more than $96 million in fiscal 2010 to roughly $58 million in the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

The present spending figure is itself a reduction from the $186 million the program received in fiscal 2009.

The second proposed reduction surprised some in the arms control community who see stockpile disassembly as a critical component to the wide-ranging nonproliferation agenda President Barack Obama detailed last year in his widely noted speech in Prague.

The existing dismantlement rate could pose a problem for the administration's nonproliferation agenda because "it needs to be able to go and show the international community that it's not just extending the life of the weapons that remain in the stockpile," according to Kristensen.

The dismantlement effort involves storage, surveillance and complete disposition of retired weapons and their machinery as well as an international commitment to eliminate special nuclear material, such as highly enriched uranium and plutonium, deemed as excess to national security needs, according to an agency fact sheet.

Today there are about 5,000 warheads in the Defense Department stockpile, Kristensen said in an interview last week. Of those, 2,600 are deployed while another 2,400 are held in reserve.

Roughly 4,500 nuclear bombs have been removed from the stockpile and are awaiting disassembly, he told Global Security Newswire.

The United States has taken apart roughly 60,600 nuclear warheads over the last several decades, according to Kristensen. About 11,000 were disassembled in the 1990s.

It was not immediately clear how the proposed funding cut would impact the rate of warhead dismantlement.

The nuclear agency produces a "production and planning directive" document every year that includes the anticipated number of weapon dismantlements into the "extended future," NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera said in an e-mail last week.

The figures in that document reflect numbers to which the government committed in the fiscal 2006 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act and the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2008, he said.

"Those quantities are classified," LaVera added.

During a conference call with reporters earlier this month NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino said he had "kind of fixated on the number." He did not elaborate.

The proposed funding cut for the program "reflects a reduction in weapons and component/canned subassembly (CMA) dismantlements, associated component disposition, and some weapon-specific support for the recycling, recovery and storage of nuclear material that is a byproduct of weapons dismantlements," according to an agency budget document.

"The decrease also reflects a return to baseline funding after a one-time congressional increase in FY 10," it stated. Congress appropriated $12 million above the president's request budget for disassembly activities in this budget year.

"In no way should you read that this reduction in dismantlement ... somehow lessens our commitment to meeting our goals on dismantlements," Harencak told reporters. "In fact, it enables us to meet those future commitments."

Budget documents show that after the proposed cut for fiscal year 2011 "outyear funding" for the dismantlement efforts would hover between $48 million and $60 million for the ensuing four budget cycles.

"We're actually on a path to meet our dismantlement requirements while we're saving money," the general said.

In fiscal 2011, dismantlement activities would include maintaining the flow of work at the Pantex Plant in Texas and the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee. The program at Pantex would include disassembly for portions of the B-53, B-61, W-80 and B-83 warheads.

D'Agostino defended the rate of work, noting that each warhead in the stockpile is different and requires a unique approach.

For example, the B-53 bomb -- originally built during the 1950s and delivered by the B-52 bomber -- is "very large ... and you can imagine something that was built 50 years ago ... it's pretty hard to take apart," he said.

Kristensen said that before the agency can start a dismantlement line it must first design special tools to take a particular warhead apart and obtain permission to use those instruments before even establishing a disassembly time line.

"Some of these clunkers have been in the arsenal a long time. Some chemicals might have reacted and there might corrosion in the bolts," he said. "They have to be super-careful when they take them apart because they don't want to trigger an explosion."

The rate of dismantlement can also be affected by the nuclear agency's life extension programs, which are conducted at the Pantex facility, Kristensen said. Those programs aim to prolong the lifetime of particular warheads or bombs. Dismantlement work takes up capacity at Pantex from life-extension work; therefore disassembly rates go up and down depending on life-extension requirements, Kristensen told GSN.

He said the only life extension program running today is for the W-76 warhead that would enable 2,000 W-76-1 bombs to remain in the arsenal through 2021.

"If Congress approves the life-extension of the B-61 bombs, dismantlement capacity would drop even more," according to Kristensen.

He added: "In terms of the warhead numbers themselves, the bottom line is that the number of annual dismantlements is not nearly close to what we used to do in the 1990s" when nation on average took apart 1,060 bombs per year.

Kristensen also criticized the White House insistence on keeping the dismantlement figure classified.

"When we look at Russia, we don't know how they take their weapons apart, how many they take part, what their plans are, etc.," he said. "For us to keep our numbers classified means that we're making it easier for people in Russia to keep their numbers secret as well and I don't think that serves anybody any good."

Several arms control experts declined to comment on the rate of warhead dismantlement or did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

In his e-mail, LaVera rebutted the idea that the proposed budget cut for dismantlement does not mesh with the administration's nonproliferation agenda.

"It goes without saying that the president's budget request for NNSA reflects his nuclear security agenda and priorities," he told GSN last week. The fiscal 2011 spending request "provides sufficient resources to complete the dismantlement schedules submitted to Congress."

The agency is set to complete dismantlement of existing retired weapons by 2022, he added.

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