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The US nuclear weapons complex needs a new role via The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Kennette Benedict

The US nuclear weapons complex is in disarray, disrepair, and perhaps dissolution. In 2000, Washington created the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to better manage the facilities that make up the complex, which include the national laboratories at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Livermore, California, as well as sites that maintain, dismantle, and produce components for nuclear weapons. But as a Congressional commission led by former Under Secretary of the Army Norman Augustine and retired Adm. Richard Mies recently concluded, the NNSA has failed in its mission.
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Set up in the middle of the last century to research and design nuclear weapons, their old mission doesn’t make much sense nearly 25 years after the end of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Arsenals comprised of thousands of nuclear weapons are no longer needed, but neither the United States nor Russia has devised a national security policy that moves beyond the flawed assumptions of nuclear deterrence. That leaves them with weapons that have little purpose, but are so dangerous that they must be maintained so they don’t accidentally go off.

Second, the privatization of the nuclear weapons laboratories has had a major impact. Augustine and Mies write that privatization has resulted in a “flawed … governance model” at the NNSA; a lack of “sound management practices;” a “dysfunctional management and operations relationship,” and “uneven collaboration with customers”—the “customers” being the NNSA and the Energy Department, which oversees it.
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The new agency turned to private contractors, including Booz Allen Hamilton, Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox, and Honeywell, to take over everyday management of the labs. However, as Tyler Przybylek, former general counsel for the NNSA, remarked at the Sixth Annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit in February, “profits and nuclear weapons don’t mix.”
The most robust public discussion seems to focus on the high financial cost of these weapons of mass destruction, with critics hoping that downward pressure on the federal budget will require cuts to the nuclear weapons program. The result of this timidity is confusion about both the purpose of the nuclear weapons laboratories and the role of nuclear weapons in US national security—a confusion made more acute by US President Barack Obama’s calls for a world free of nuclear weapons.
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Already we’ve seen hints of a possible future role for the laboratories. Despite an overall lack of direction, the scientists at the Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia national laboratories are using their knowledge for new medical applications, for environmental remediation, and to develop new energy sources, among other innovations. These may be just the projects that many citizens would favor, and that the world needs to meet the challenges of disease and climate change. But only with open public and political support will the nuclear weapons laboratories be reinvented as the national security laboratories—the name they already prefer.

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