When he took office in 2009, US President Barack Obama bolstered efforts to secure nuclear materials around the globe. That spring, speaking in Prague, he said that he would push Congress to ratify a long-pending treaty to ban nuclear testing. By 2010, he had reached an agreement with Russia to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in both countries’ arsenals to historic lows.
Yet the weapons laboratories of the US Department of Energy continue to be lavished with money. The administration’s 2014 budget proposal would boost funding for the weapons program to US$7.9 billion, nearly 30% more than when Obama took office. This rising flow of cash contrasts strikingly with a shrinking stockpile (see ‘Small stockpile, big expense’). Life-extension programs for weapons would receive more than $1 billion of this ‘stockpile-stewardship’ budget, including $537 million for a showcase initiative to modify and modernize the B61 line of nuclear gravity bombs.
By keeping weapons scientists busy at top-of-the-line facilities, Obama says that he is maintaining a nuclear deterrent, one based as much on retaining brains as on projecting brawn. “We’re going to keep investing in these programs,” he said, during a non-proliferation event in Washington DC in December 2012, “because our national security depends on it.”
But the economic toll of doing so has grown increasingly — and, many argue, unnecessarily — steep. “It’s been far more expensive than it needs to be,” says Richard Garwin, a physicist and one of the designers of the first hydrogen bomb in the 1950s. “There’s a real lack of control over budgets and programs.” The most vociferous critics go a step further, arguing that stockpile stewardship is about keeping people employed, and that Obama has used the program to placate the sprawling nuclear-weapons complex and the politicians that support it while pursuing weapons reductions and non-proliferation goals.
Expensive science facilities and maintenance projects have become commonplace at US weapons labs since the end of the cold war in 1991 and the last US underground weapons test in 1992. Two costly stockpile-stewardship facilities, for example, are housed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California: the National Ignition Facility, a giant laser that is intended to replicate fusion explosions; and Sequoia, the world’s second most powerful supercomputer, which is used to model nuclear explosions. Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico also has a supercomputer and was planning, until recently, to build a major plutonium-research facility.
The latest major stockpile-stewardship initiative is the B61 life-extension program at Los Alamos. This will merge components from several different versions of the weapon within a new bombshell, which would include updated safety and security features and a new tail.