The U.S. is treaty-bound to cut its atomic arsenal, but the nuclear-industrial complex can’t stop building.
The production of plutonium pits—the fissile cores required to detonate the explosion in a nuclear weapon—is said to be the chokepoint of America’s nuclear program: when the pit assembly line shuts down, the clock on the arsenal’s shelf life starts ticking.
But there are an estimated 15,000 pits of various age in government storage, and experts insist an untold number of them have lifespans in excess of 100 years. Given that the United States has pledged to reduce its nuclear arsenal (now at 7,100 warheads, with approximately 1,635 deployed), there would appear to be no reason to re-engage the production of plutonium pits.
Just in the last few years, the Obama administration, once keen on nuclear disarmament, has instead reversed course with plans not only to maintain but to modernize the existing nuclear fleet. As the New York Timesreported in 2014, the administration “is engaging in extensive atomic rebuilding while getting only modest arms reductions in return.”
This was borne out in the release of the White House budget on February 9. According to analysts, Obama is going out with a bang, proposing to build new weapons systems for each leg of the nuclear triad: allocating roughly $3.2 billion to modernize and recapitalize nuclear submarines, bombers, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, and nuclear-equipped cruise missiles, and putting nuclear weapon modernization on track for an estimated $1 trillion price tag over the next 30 years.
“This administration’s proposal to renew and upgrade the entire nuclear triad as fast as possible, retiring essentially nothing and adding new capabilities as they become available, reflects a near-total absence of intellectual and moral leadership from the White House,” Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group tells TAC.
So what does this have to do with the pits? For some, the pits themselves have become a metaphor, the tell-tale heart of the nuclear age. “[The] locus of the most potential energy on earth, it’s the closest mankind has ever come to producing a devil in a bottle,” wrote Russ Wellen in 2014.
But beyond their existential implications, critics believe—much like other skeptics of the Military-Industrial Complex—that producing more pits is just make-work for the government’s nuclear labs, and big bucks for the contractors. The modernization program only exacerbates these conditions.
Los Alamos is ground zero for the pit issue. It is the only place in the country that is equipped to make pits; it can produce about 10 a year. But politicians and bureaucrats in Washington say that is not enough, and so have engaged on an ongoing and, to some, confounding effort to pour billions of dollars into an expanded plutonium facility that could someday accommodate the production of 80 pits a year.
Read more at Addicted to Los Alamos