Stewards of the Apocalypse

Stewards of the Apocalypse: An abridged history of U.S. nuclear weapons labs since 1989

By Greg Mello

Los Alamos Study Group

May 18, 2016

What follows is a short and very abridged history of these labs since the Cold War, which will help us understand the political dynamics these labs operate in, how they attained their present grand scale – and what we can do about it. It is adapted from a talk I gave at the New York Academy of Medicine in February 2015 at a symposium sponsored by the Helen Caldicott Foundation entitled “The Dynamics of Possible Nuclear Extinction.”

I tried to tell this story through distinguishable time periods, over the course of which there were about five separate “breakouts,” in which the labs escaped democratic control a bit more each time. In the process there were two major “deals” made with the arms control community, both under Democratic Party presidents. These deals failed to achieve their stated goals and facilitated breakout.

The most significant disarmament occurred during the presidencies of G. H. W. Bush and that of his son G. W. Bush, both Republicans. Obama has done the least for disarmament and the most for modernization.

Administrations change, with apparent novelty and some new slogans. Contractors change occasionally. But at the nuclear labs, there’s enormous continuity as well as change. Beneath the surface, the institutional DNA of the nuclear weapons labs has remained remarkably constant, for decades.

Finally, one cannot understand these laboratories in isolation from related issues. To understand the resurgence of nuclear weapons programs and spending today, it is also necessary to recount the general outline of U.S.-Russian relations in the post- Cold War period. I do that here, in italics. Basically, the neocons made a very successful end-run around nuclear arms control. The extent to which arms control advocates are victims of anti-Russian propaganda is still not much understood in Washington.

Stewards of the Apocalypse: an abridged history of U.S. nuclear weapons labs since 1989

1989-1994: Uncertainty and then downsizing (or “right-sizing”) at the labs. Rocky Flats shutdown and elimination of the Berlin Wall (both 1989). Reciprocal stockpile reductions (to about half of before), bomber de-alerting. Successive failures of DOE plans for a renewed weapons complex. Production site closures (about 80% of facilities). Staff declines (about 1/3 of weapons designers). End of nuclear weapons production after Short-Range Attack Missile (SRAM) workaround. Nuclear test moratorium from 9/92, extended under Sec. O’Leary in 1993 after collapse of stated testing rationales and notional commitment to what became Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship (SBSS). Eileen Welsome Pulitzer-prize reporting on human radiation experiments, O’Leary press conference (12/93). Initiation of the ambitious SBSS program (milestone JASON SBBS report, 11/94); aggressive programs for new nuclear weapons at labs continue to press upwards but fail.

During this period, Cold War triumphalism, which meant more to some factions than others. Leaked Wolfowitz draft Strategic Planning Guidance (1992), at the time seemingly dead in the water. Yeltsin era begins in 1991 (through 1999). Dismantling and collapse of Soviet Union; terrible hardship. Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II (START II) signed (1993), ratified by Russia in 2000 under Putin, including the condition that U.S. must remain within the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.


1994-1996: Stabilization and groundwork for growth; new powers to the labs; many new weapons proposed, first new bomb built (B61-11). SBSS begins, the precursor of the broader Stockpile Stewardship and Management (SSM) program. SBSS the result of a political deal for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) (“Deal #1”). The Galvin Panel threat to the labs (especially to LLNL and NIF) fended off. Clinton Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) fails under Ash Carter (1994), endorses status quo. SSM Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for weapons complex renewal. Comprehensive JASON 1995 study of stockpile: performance margins for fission primaries are all high enough and can be made higher; JASON issues strong warning against changes. Major effort to include disarmament provisions in Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) led by 120 countries of Non-Aligned Movement nations (NAM) fails in 1995 due to opposition from nuclear weapon states and U.S. arms control funders and NGOs; “Abolition Caucus” of NGOs formed in response. “Stockpile Confidence Symposium” hosted by STRATCOM later in 1995; new weapon candidates briefed to military by labs. First “Submarine Warhead Protection Program” (SWPP) meeting (1995), eventually leading to significant upgrade of W76 fuzing in what is now the W76-1 Life Extension Program (LEP), which as of Feb. 2015 was a little more than half completed. CTBT signed, new “Safeguards” in place with annual warhead certification requirement initiated which gave considerable power, really blackmail power as some understand it, to lab directors. With these changes a new era for labs begins. B61-11 earth-penetrator rapidly created by a field modification (1996) after years of study; it is the first “new” post-nuclear-testing warhead or bomb.


1995-2004: Decade of large real annual increases in warhead and lab spending, fully-supported by arms control community as part of CTBT ratification “deal.”

During this period, initial rise of the neocons. Project for a New American Century (PNAC) begins (1997); “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” (2000). Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard (1997). Clinton turns right on NATO, nukes. Lewinsky scandal, impeachment, Kosovo war (all 1998). NATO expansions (Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999; Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania in 2004); other Russian border states put in NATO “vestibule” pending membership.


1997 or 1998: National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) “reforms” give additional new powers to lab directors and other weapons complex and STRATCOM leaders. Lab directors, who are contractors, now cannot be fired for opinions about stockpile, etc. “Project Sand Dune” (1997), part of stage-setting for new weapons in next administration (a repeating pattern).


1999-2000: “Lab Breakout” I, when CTBT ratification (“Deal #1”) fails. The labs just renege on the deal. Wen Ho Lee scandal. Foster Panel reports (these continue through 2003) promoting labs. NNSA created, largely to provide freedom from DOE oversight. PNAC nuclear policy study, which becomes blueprint for initial G. W. Bush nuclear policy.


2001-2005: Neocons in power, unprecedented warhead budgets (Breakout II, attempted but only partially successful); plan to make over or replace the entire arsenal in Bush NPR (fails but is successfully reinstated under Obama); Modern Pit Facility (MPF) proposed but fails. This breakout was checked in part by lack of sound purpose, by bipartisan congressional and NGO opposition, and florid, poor management. Half-year LANL security and safety shutdown (2004).

During this period, beginning of continuous global “liquid war” and resulting growing chaos (aka “War on Terror”). U.S. withdrawal from ABM treaty (2002), triggering end of START II (2002). The weak but surprisingly effective Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) signed (2002).


2005: Breakout III: physics lab privatization decision (LANS 2006, LLNS 2007). Bechtel-led consortia with only minor corporate differences take over both labs. Lab directors are now interest-conflicted corporate presidents and CEOs. Previous contractor (University of California) was not using the latent power of labs sufficiently. Privatization causes significant reductions in force and lays groundwork for defined-benefit pension crisis in the present decade. Warhead budgets begin falling in real terms as the cost of new wars weighs down the military budget and tax cuts are enacted. Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) proposed.

During this year (2005): Peak conventional (i.e. cheap) oil appears, in the form of an “undulating plateau” of production. Net oil exports peak worldwide, peak oil per capita and peak oil per dollar GDP all pass into history, initiating a new era of incipient scarcity. Oil and gas geopolitics in all their forms enter a fraught new period, with Russia near or at the top of oil export rankings and Europe highly and increasingly dependent on Russian gas.


2006-2008: Relative stability at the labs amid the growing turmoil about performance; budgets sag in real terms and operational costs soar. RRW dies. New plans laid; but global financial crisis. GW Bush retires half of nuclear arsenal (2007), fulfilling SORT commitment 5 years early.

During this period, Putin speech in Munich reviews history of arms control, drawing line, halting Russian weakness toward U.S. and NATO (Feb. 2007). Russo-Georgia war (2008).


2009-2010: Breakout IV: the “Prague Deception,” Nobel rumors (in February), then the Prague speech in April, then the prize. December 2009 love-fest with lab directors at White House; administration commits to wider role for nuclear labs in homeland security, intelligence and DoD, later visible in interagency charter of July 2010 immediately preceding New START endorsement by lab directors, plus also $1 trillion comprehensive DoD/DOE nuclear modernization commitment, plus also a New START without significant disarmament (with more warheads at higher readiness in the reserve arsenal than before). Vague NPR issued with differing interpretations. This whole package is “Deal #2.”

During this period, Albania and Croatia join NATO (2009).


2011-2013: Modernization falters. Flagship project Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) paused by litigation then fails from lack of need, wasting $500 million; fiasco continues to now [2016]. Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Y-12 site in Oak Ridge stumbles and is dramatically downsized and redesigned, also wasting a half-billion or more dollars. At this point, every large NNSA and DOE project is in trouble. Budget Control Act (BCA) sequestration limits modernization “takeoff,” given the highly wasteful institutional environment.

During this period, direct U.S. involvement in U.S.-abetted and U.S.-ally-funded Syria war, sought by neocons since 2003 and before, averted at last minute (2013). Pentagon approves possible nuclear reduction of one-third, which isn’t implemented in part due to political conditions associated with Deal #2. Yalta (Crimea) conference about the (European) future of Ukraine and Crimea, including both Clintons and former DOE Sec. Richardson, who promises that fracking will provide natural gas independence for Ukraine from Russia.


2014: Breakout V: massive warhead budget liftoff at last, Obama disarmament hopes ended. But also some significant retrenchment and delays in stockpile management goals. Nuclear moderate Asst. DoD Sec. Andrew Weber fired by Obama; nuclear war-fighting mentality slips the leash. Old-fashioned “public service” fee model for labs floated by NNSA given poor performance under profit motive. “Interoperable” warhead delayed indefinitely at end of year or beginning of 2015, effectively ending (lab-written) “3 + 2” stockpile plan in all but name, but LRSO schedule moved up 3 years. LANL idiocy shuts down WIPP indefinitely due to scientific, management error incurring $500+ million in costs. DOE withholds all LANL fee, shortens contract by two years. Latest reform committees stumble forward fecklessly. NNSA called “failed experiment” but nothing is done.

During this period, U.S.- and other launch violent “color revolution” (“Maidan” coup d’etat), to bring Ukraine into the Western economic and political orbit which would drastically weaken Russia and seize Russia’s warm-water Black Sea port of Sevastopol, culturally and militarily part of Russia since Catherine the Great.. The new Ukraine government initiates civil war. Neo-Nazi violence grows. Russia accepts Crimea back after fair, highly-lopsided vote, without violence, frustrating neocon plan. Economic sanctions against Russia, plus a currency attack. And so arms reductions likely end under Obama before they begin.


2015-2016: continued robust budget growth, shorter warhead modernization deadlines, required design and prototyping of new warheads.

Meanwhile, Russia makes itself indispensable in Syria and as regards Iran, strengthens its military, elevates its nuclear command, establishes large, capable National Guard force, and continues nuclear modernization. Ukraine now seems a bigger problem for Europe. NATO forces strengthened dramatically across the Eastern Europe. Plans for big NATO navy base at Odessa. Cold War II well underway.


How shall we summarize this history of the labs? I would say:

What prospect, then? Expanding our lens as at the beginning of this talk, we find ourselves in a new era, almost a discontinuity in history across many fronts. The common quality of these changes is increasing constraint on the choices available. A Churchillian “period of consequences” has begun. But please note, these constraints also act on the nuclear warhead enterprise, which faces headwinds it finds mysteriously potent.

To conclude, we face a number of risks, including:

In such a situation we have very little to lose by boldness, and everything to lose by incrementalism. When a centrist former Secretary of Defense (William Perry) argues that the U.S. has no need for either ICBMs or new cruise missiles, we should sit up and pay attention. Why is the Air Force in the nuclear business at all? The answer to that question is not “nuclear deterrence.”

There will be no wide or deep political support for discussions of how many of our nuclear demons will fit on the head of a pin. We should be aiming at deep cuts and major changes in policy, not 10% trims.

We need to advocate for slashing lab budgets and we need to attack the legitimacy of nuclear weapons themselves. This, as part of a broader turning of our society away from militarism, empire, and war, toward human solidarity and stewardship of our precious, fragile earth.


Read More:

William J Perry

What Are the Odds?