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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
'Foster Panel' Critiques Nuclear Weapons Complex

Philipp C. Bleek

A congressionally established panel has said that there are potentially serious shortfalls in the nuclear weapons complex and in the stockpile stewardship effort, which is intended to preserve U.S. nuclear weapons in the absence of underground testing.

The Panel to Assess the Reliability, Safety, and Security of the United States Nuclear Stockpile, known as the "Foster panel" after chairman and former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Director John Foster, was established by the fiscal year 1999 National Defense Authorization Act to prepare three annual reports assessing the stockpile stewardship effort.

The group's February 1 report, the second of three, cites "funding shortfalls" and the lack of a "coherent strategy" as the most significant causes of "growing deficiencies in the nuclear weapons production complex," continued "slippage" in reaching program milestones, and "unacceptably high risks to the completion of needed weapon refurbishments." The group also says that recent security breaches have caused "deep morale and personnel problems" throughout the nuclear complex.

The panel makes a series of targeted recommendations to remedy what it terms a "disturbing gap" between the declared policy that maintaining the stockpile is a "supreme national interest" and actions that have been taken in support of that policy. In its primary recommendation, the panel calls for enhancing the United States' capability to produce fissile material cores for nuclear weapons, which would be required if serious defects were found in current weapons' cores.

The report also calls for the refurbishment of the nuclear weapons complex infrastructure, which it deemed would require an additional $300-500 million per year in funding. Fiscal Year 2001 infrastructure activities, including construction, repair, and maintenance, totaled about $1.6 billion. In addition, the panel states that a backlog of maintenance work amounting to $700-800 million must be dealt with.

The panel concludes that there is an "urgent need for a coherent vision, comprehensive plan, and programmatic commitment" and warns, "Failure to meet these needs would virtually guarantee that, in the decades ahead, the nation would face a crisis in the weapons program."

Testifying at a March 13 Senate subcommittee hearing, National Nuclear Security Administration head General John Gordon emphasized that "we don't need any more studies" and highlighted the fact that "every report, every study" has indicated that additional funding "approaching $500 million a year for at least the next ten years" is required to refurbish the nuclear weapons complex.