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The Arms Control Association is an "exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size." 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
U.S. Nuke Dismantlement: Modest Uptick

Wade Boese

The United States this June slightly lifted the shroud of secrecy covering its nuclear warhead dismantlement activities, claiming at least a 50 percent increase over its 2006 rate. Although the announcement elicited general praise, the amount of warheads dismantled annually remains unknown and is apparently significantly less than a decade ago, leading some lawmakers to press the Bush administration to do more such work.

Thomas D’Agostino, then-acting administrator of the Department of Energy’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), told the House appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development last March that the United States has dismantled “more than 13,000 warheads since 1988.” On Aug. 30, D’Agostino was sworn in as the administrator of the NNSA, which manages the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

The Energy Department provided dismantlement details up until 1999 when the government decided that such information might give U.S. foes too much insight into the composition and size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. That data reveals that the United States dismantled approximately 13,500 warheads between 1988 and 1999.

Citing anonymous congressional and administration sources, The Washington Post reported in May 2006 that “in recent years” the United States had annually disassembled “fewer than 100 warheads.” In a Sept. 19 interview with Arms Control Today, an NNSA spokesperson declined to comment on that article’s accuracy, citing the fact that dismantlement information is classified. Commenting on the NNSA’s recent announcement, however, a congressional staff member familiar with the issue told Arms Control Today Sept. 12 that “a 50 percent [increase] for a number that is already small is not a great claim to fame.”

Still, two other informed congressional aides interviewed in September by Arms Control Today commended the NNSA for recently making dismantlement a higher priority. Earlier this year, the NNSA declared it would accelerate the dismantlement of all currently retired warheads and those slated for future retirement in order to complete the elimination process by 2023 instead of 2034, as it had projected earlier.

The revamped dismantlement schedule includes the warheads that the Bush administration intends to retire under a June 2004 plan to cut the approximately 10,000-warhead stockpile almost in half by 2012. (See ACT, July/August 2004. ) Decisions by future administrations to cut or retain additional warheads from the stockpile—warheads that are classified as active or inactive but not those that are retired—could alter the schedule.

The congressional staffers say warhead dismantlement is important because it signals to the world that the United States is committed to reducing its nuclear weapons while it seeks to limit the global spread of nuclear arms. An advisory board to the secretary of energy also emphasized in a July 2005 report that dismantlement reduces the risk of nuclear accidents and terrorist theft.

Ambassador Linton Brooks, who was D’Agostino’s predecessor as head of the NNSA between July 2002 and January 2007, cautioned in a Sept. 17 interview with Arms Control Today that although safety is one motivation for dismantlement, that does not suggest that retired warheads are “unsafe.” He said that taking apart retired warheads is the “most sensible thing to do” because they are no longer needed.

Brooks’ tenure overlapped with the reduced dismantlement rate of the past several years. Brooks attributed the slower pace in part to more stringent security and safety procedures at Pantex, the sole U.S. facility that carries out dismantlement work. “Striking the right line between safety and paralysis is very hard,” he said.

The warhead type being disassembled can also affect the speed of dismantlement. Pantex, located near Amarillo, Texas, reports that it may need “a few days to a few weeks” to take apart a warhead. Brooks noted, “[E]ase of disassembly was not an important design consideration during the Cold War.” The United States last assembled a new warhead in 1990.

Pantex also is where the United States conducts its surveillance and life-extension programs for stockpile warheads. At a Jan. 25, 2006, Washington event, Brooks stated that given the limited capacity of Pantex, he prioritized stockpile program activities and used dismantlement to “fill in the peaks and valleys…in order to keep a steady workload there.” Ultimately, Brooks contended in September, “within constrained resources, we did it right.”

Not everyone, including Brooks’ former boss, shares that assessment. Testifying March 6 to the House panel on energy and water development, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said that management of warhead dismantlement had been “very weak” and that the pace of disassembly had “fallen down.” The three congressional staffers also said the priority previously assigned dismantlement had been insufficient but that it is now improving.

The NNSA spokesperson asserted that the “primary reason” behind the announced 50 percent dismantlement jump was “increased attention and focus…since 2004.” That effort, according to a June 7 NNSA press release, involved “dramatic improvements in procedures, tools, and policies.”

The congressional staffers contend that pressure from U.S. lawmakers played a critical role in compelling the NNSA to devote more attention and resources to dismantlement. Since 2000, the NNSA reports that $387.5 million has been spent on dismantlement, but some of that total resulted from Congress increasing funding beyond the administration’s original budget requests.

Some lawmakers are again seeking to remedy what they perceive as the administration’s shortchanging of dismantlement in the latest budget request for fiscal year 2008, which begins Oct. 1. In February, the administration asked Congress for $6.5 billion in total nuclear weapons spending, of which $52 million is allocated for dismantlement. (See ACT, March 2007. )

The House in July passed an energy and water appropriations bill that included a $30 million net increase for dismantlement activities. Some legislators have suggested that the additional funds could be used to expand disassembly work to the Device Assembly Facility at the Nevada nuclear test site. That facility previously has not been used for dismantlement.

The Senate has yet to pass its version of the energy and water bill, but the committee with initial responsibility for the measure did not augment dismantlement funding. Legislators from the two chambers will need to reconcile any differences between their separate bills before sending a final act to the president.

Both bills currently match the administration’s requested $91 million for building a pit disassembly and conversion facility at Savannah River, South Carolina. A pit is the core component of a nuclear warhead that contains the plutonium that powers the nuclear explosion. The United States has no large-scale capability to disassemble the pits themselves, so they are stored in underground bunkers at Pantex. The Clinton administration envisioned the pit facility, which would turn plutonium metal into oxide for use as reactor fuel or for long-term waste storage, to be operating by 2006, but construction has not started.

Meanwhile, the NNSA “plans to maintain a robust pace of dismantlements,” its spokesperson said. Pantex is currently taking apart W62 warheads that previously armed Minuteman III ICBMs and two models of the B61 gravity bomb. Next in line, according to the spokesperson, will be B83 gravity bombs and W80 warheads that used to outfit submarine-launched ballistic missiles.