Nuclear Weapons Activity Surges in Energy Department Budget

Christine Kucia

Amid speculation about the Bush administration’s plans for the development and use of nuclear weapons, the Department of Energy (DOE) requested $6.38 billion for its nuclear weapons-related activities in fiscal year 2004—an increase of $532.2 million from 2003’s request, according to budget documents released February 3. DOE’s anticipated nuclear weapons work includes an increase in nuclear test readiness and research into earth-penetrating nuclear weapons.

While continuing to observe the moratorium on nuclear testing, DOE will begin to prepare the Nevada Test Site to conduct a nuclear test within 18 months of a presidential order, as recommended in a fiscal year 2002 Enhanced Test Readiness Cost Study. For fiscal year 2004, the agency’s test readiness budget will jump 39 percent to $24.9 million as DOE transitions from the current testing readiness window of 24-36 months. The final decision to move to an 18-month readiness posture, however, is contingent upon the outcome of a DOE report on the optimal time period for U.S. test site readiness. The report was mandated by Congress in the 2003 Defense Authorization Act and is expected to be completed within the next year. (See ACT, December 2002.)

In addition, the Energy Department’s budget request proposes further research on a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP). In November 2002, Congress authorized $15 million a year for three years to conduct RNEP research, which will examine modifying existing B-61 and B-83 nuclear warheads to penetrate hardened and deeply buried facilities that might house weapons of mass destruction. The RNEP research will fall under the purview of the department’s Advanced Concepts Initiative. Under the budget request, that program would receive an additional $6 million “to conduct preconceptual and feasibility studies,” Energy Department spokesman Bryan Wilkes said February 26.

Manufacturing and certification of plutonium “pits,” the triggers of thermonuclear weapons, could also receive a significant increase in fiscal year 2004. DOE’s budget request includes spending $320.2 million—almost 36 percent more than in 2003—to manufacture and certify pits for W-88 warheads, which are mounted on U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Over the past several years, DOE has worked to establish a limited pit-production capability at Los Alamos National Laboratory to manufacture W-88 pits to meet stockpile maintenance requirements.

The fiscal year 2004 DOE budget request also includes money to construct a new facility to restart full-scale production of the plutonium pits for use in new or refurbished weapons. According to DOE, the Modern Pit Facility “will ensure a capacity of no less than 125 pits per year, with the ability to expand production to meet national security needs.”

Critics of DOE’s pit-manufacturing program and the new facility contend that plutonium pits are readily available from existing nuclear warheads that are not operationally deployed. DOE is also expected to have additional plutonium pits after warheads are removed from deployment under the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty negotiated between the United States and Russia in May 2002. The department argues that the increased pit-production capacity is necessary to sustain stockpile safety and credibility.