WASHINGTON — A think tank report says the Obama administration is preparing to cut America’s nuclear weapons arsenal by as much as one-third in a move that would save billions of dollars, but New Mexico congressional Democrats say that’s not necessarily bad news for the state’s nuclear weapons labs.
The report released Friday by the Center for Public Integrity says the new policy is contained in a “proposed classified directive prepared for Obama’s signature” and calls for a reduced stockpile of between 1,000 and 1,100 warheads. The 2010 START treaty with Russia set a threshold of 1,550.
Much of the work on the U.S. nuclear arsenal is conducted at Los Alamos and Sandia National laboratories and has long been a mainstay of New Mexico’s economy. Together, the two labs employ about 20,000 people.
Further, the Air Force has a key nuclear mission at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque.
“I support the administration’s efforts to reduce our nuclear stockpile as long as it isn’t done unilaterally,” said Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a New Mexico Democrat whose district includes Sandia and Kirtland.
“As this policy becomes reality, we need to ensure our support to Sandia National Laboratories so they have the resources needed to continue to play a pivotal role in the broader nuclear safety mission and continues to diversify their work into areas such as energy security and water security.”
Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said the report concerned him.
“The current size of our nuclear arsenal is the result of careful strategic planning by our top military leaders,” he said. “Their decisions should never take a back seat to political or budgetary pressure.”
Lujan Grisham said that “by maintaining a nuclear stockpile of between 1,000 and 1,100 warheads, we will still be able to provide a strong nuclear deterrent.” Those were the weapons numbers contained in the new Center for Public Integrity report, which cited multiple unnamed sources.
The Journal reported in July that the Obama administration was looking at the possibility of further reductions.
”An internal Pentagon review now under way reportedly includes three ‘what if’ scenarios looking at what further reductions might entail — 1,000-1,100, 700-800 or 300-400 weapons deployed on U.S. missiles and bombers,” the Journal report said.
Officials at both laboratories declined to comment on the Center for Public Integrity report on Friday.
The report said official action could be imminent.
“Much of the policy has yet to be implemented, but with the election behind him and a new national security team selected, Obama finally is prepared to send this new guidance to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to open a new dialogue with Russia about corresponding reductions in deployed weapons,” the Center for Public Integrity report says.
It says that “such a reduction would open the door to billions of dollars in military savings.”
“It is premature to speculate on the impact of this review until it has been released and we have had an opportunity to thoroughly study it,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M, who represents LANL. “However, I share the president’s goal of reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles around the world, and believe LANL has an important role to play toward this goal and in maintaining and ensuring the safety of a smaller nuclear deterrent.
“Any efforts to reduce the nuclear stockpile will require LANL to play a key role in that process from monitoring compliance to ensuring that the current warheads are kept safe until the time comes to destroy them.”
Pearce said, “In New Mexico, our labs have already seen the effects of a reduced NNSA budget; any further reduction in the size or scope of our nuclear mission will have a negative impact on both facilities, and worse, would compromise our national security. As we are constantly reminded by events in North Korea and Iran, the world is not a safer place.”
A spokeswoman for Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said it was “premature to speculate on the impact of this review” until Heinrich had a chance to evaluate it. But in a statement, he said he could support additional reductions beyond the START treaty as long as the labs’ missions and infrastructure are supported.
“For the foreseeable future, our nation will have a nuclear arsenal, and we need to do everything we can to make sure it is safe, secure, and reliable,” Heinrich said. “Our national labs continue to play an important role in the maintenance and modernization of the stockpile.”
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., took a cautious approach to the report.
“Los Alamos and Sandia National labs are valuable national assets, and I will continue to advocate for adequate federal budgets to support their missions, modernization of their facilities and diversification of their work,” Udall said. “The existing policy in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review outlined multilateral reductions of nuclear weapons, but also stressed the need to modernize both the infrastructure at our national labs, and the arsenal, to ensure a safe, secure, and effective deterrent.
“Congress has not yet received any new policy directive from the president, and I will carefully analyze all findings, as well as future treaties or agreements, when we do.”
Thus far, stockpile cuts since the end of the Cold War have led to increased workloads for the nuclear weapons laboratories, which have shifted to maintaining old weapons rather than designing new ones, and experts say that is likely to be the case with further reductions. That could depend, however, on how many different types of nuclear weapons the United States decides to maintain.
The same scientific capabilities to do things like analyzing the plutonium in aging weapons are needed whether the labs are monitoring a handful of weapons or thousands, said former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Sig Hecker. For that work, he said, the size of the stockpile doesn’t matter. “We’re talking about capabilities, not capacity,” Hecker told the Journal in an interview in July.
But Obama administration critics wonder whether the possibility of future cuts may be behind a recent decision to scale back planned spending increases at Los Alamos, including the indefinite delay of a multibillion-dollar plutonium laboratory complex.