Building a Better Bomb

While condemning India for its nuclear testing, the U.S. government quietly funnels billions to research programs aimed at creating an ever-more-virulent nuclear arsenal

Johnson has been at the lab 26 years. He has been to the desert. He has seen the difference between what the codes predicted for a certain warhead, and what actually happened when it was detonated underground. "To some extent, there was something we didn't know with every test," he says.

If the country is going to expect scientists like him to vouch for the arsenal without underground testing, Johnson says, then he needs the NIF laser and all the other tools in the stewardship box to do the job.

But improving the codes is not necessary if you simply want to preserve the weapons we already have, critics say. And scientists, if allowed, will naturally follow the learning curve as far as they can, divining more and more about nuclear weaponry, perhaps more than we want them to.

Greg Mello heads the Los Alamos Study Group in New Mexico, an anti-nuclear group that rides herd on the weapons labs there. He sees all the fancy new equipment the labs are building for the stewardship program as "a kind of intellectual gymnasium for Dr. Strangelove."

"They don't need to fill in the gaps [in the codes] if they are willing to keep the weapons they have, which work," Mello says. "They feel if they don't do that they will become technologically isolated from the larger society and largely unable to make their weapons, because they will be largely curating antiques. Our perspective is that they should be curating antiques."

But the government wants its weapons labs to be more than just caretakers.

The U.S. Department of Energy oversees the nation's nuclear weapons work, the design labs, manufacturing plants, and everything else. Like all federal agencies it is bound to obey environmental laws. That included preparing an environmental impact statement on the Stockpile Stewardship program, detailing the hazards that might spring from the program.

Several of the nation's largest environmental protection groups kept a close eye on DOE while it was preparing the report in 1995 and 1996. Organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council know that the nuclear weapons complex has a particularly horrendous record when it comes to fouling the environment.

Old weapons manufacturing plants like Rocky Flats in Colorado and Fernald in Ohio are toxic nightmares. Lawrence Livermore has its share of problems. A March 1998 draft report from DOE identified 353 projects that the agency must undertake to clean up the messes left behind by 50 years of weapons work.

The cleanups will be going on well into the next century, and are expected to cost $147 billion between 1997 and 2070, according to the draft report.

For obvious reasons, the environmen-talists wanted to make sure the new stewardship program wasn't going to repeat past mistakes.

As they monitored the review process, the environmentalists became convinced that DOE wasn't abiding by the law, that its reports were understating the true risks of the program and failed to explore alternatives that might be cheaper than $4 billion a year.

Finally, 39 groups banded together in 1996 and filed a lawsuit trying to stop the program. They failed to win a temporary injunction, and the suit is still pending.

After the lawsuit was filed, the NRDC ran across an obscure reference in the minutes of a panel of scientists that was advising the government on fusion experiments. The minutes referred to something called the Green Book, apparently a closely guarded DOE master plan for the Stockpile Stewardship program. Naturally, the environmental lawyers wanted to take a look at it.

The DOE resisted, saying the Green Book was a classified document, containing national secrets. Naturally, the environmentalists became even more eager to see it. A federal judge ultimately forced DOE to produce the document last year, although the government was allowed to delete the most sensitive portions.

The formal name of the document is the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, and the version released is dated Feb. 29, 1996. Presumably, there have been newer versions of the report since then, but they remain classified.

The Green Book confirmed what the anti-nuclear activists had been arguing, making clear that the stewardship program is about more than just tending to old weapons.

In fact, the document makes it clear that the government wants to continue refining the weapons process, improving the codes, and keeping the country ready to manufacture new warheads.

The report's preface notes, of course, that the major goal of the stewardship program is to keep existing weapons safe and reliable. But it lists other goals as well. In particular, that the weapons labs must be able to "provide for future manufacturing options," and "provide a capability to resume testing, if directed by the President."

Different sections of the report deal with a variety of "contingencies" that will be included under the stewardship program, including:

"Establish the capability to initiate a design for a new weapon, should it be required";

"Establish the capability to resume nuclear testing, should it be required"; and

"Establish the ability to expand production beyond the planned level, should it be required."

All the weapons in the stockpile will be candidates for overhauls, not just to make them safer, but to make them better. Another goal of the stewardship program, according to the report, is to have a "surge capability," that is to have new weapons designs drawn up and ready to go should we ever find ourselves in another arms race.

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