I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
SANTA FE — John McCain’s declaration last week that he wants to slash the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal grabbed headlines. But some nuclear weapons policy wonks may have been just as interested in something else buried a bit deeper in McCain’s speech.
"I would only support the development of any new type of nuclear weapon that is absolutely essential for the viability of our deterrent, that results in making possible further decreases in the size of our nuclear arsenal, and furthers our global nuclear security goals," McCain told a crowd in Denver on Tuesday.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee was using the same kind of language that some current administration officials use when discussing the need for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), a proposal for a new nuclear weapons design meant to replace bombs in the aging Cold War-era arsenal. Without mentioning it by name, McCain appears to be leaving the door open to the proposal, which has had trouble gaining traction and funding in Congress, where skeptics question the cost and need.
As Albuquerque Journal science writer John Fleck noted in a recent column, New Mexico’s national laboratories and the National Nuclear Security Administration have "hitched their future plans" to RRW and aren’t likely encouraged by a Foreign Policy magazine survey that shows current and former military leaders are less than enthusiastic about the idea. So for RRW and the direction of the nation’s nuclear weapons policy, much depends on the outcome of the presidential election and the candidates’ views on nuclear issues.
Much also depends on New Mexico politics. Nuclear policy experts and arms control advocates are closely watching the state’s congressional elections, which will reshape the state’s congressional delegation in the absence of retiring U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici — a man who some think has helped influence the country’s nuclear weapons policy through his years of tenacious support for Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories.
"That’s the most important thing (regarding nuclear weapons policy) going on in the next 12 months — your elections," said David Culp, a nuclear disarmament lobbyist for the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington, D.C. "You’ve got a unique situation where almost all of your federal seats are up for grabs, plus you’re competitive on the presidential level … It’s not an overstatement to say international policy on nuclear weapons is going to get decided in New Mexico."
All three of the state’s House members are vying to replace Domenici, a Republican. That means every member of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, with the exception of Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman, will be a freshman. The imminent shake-up could spell trouble for New Mexico’s two national labs, which have long counted on Domenici’s clout for funding. The two labs are among the state’s largest employers and draw billions of dollars to the state every year.
"Losing Domenici is huge," said Hugh Gusterson, an MIT anthropologist who is working on a book about U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories after the Cold War. "He has so much seniority. He’s a legend for his ability to bring the bacon home to his state, and whoever’s elected to his seat won’t have that seniority … so if I were Los Alamos and Sandia, I’d be a little worried."
"Losing Senator Domenici will be a serious challenge for the laboratories in New Mexico and a serious challenge for nuclear programs in the country — not only nuclear weapons but nuclear energy, because he’s been such a proponent," added former LANL director Siegfried Hecker, who led the lab through uncertain times in the late 1980s and 1990s when the end of the Cold War and the end of nuclear testing put the lab’s mission in question.
Domenici helped come up with an answer: a perennially funded program to ensure the reliability of nuclear weapons in the absence of underground nuclear testing. Known as stockpile stewardship, the program relies on LANL brainpower and computer simulations to verify that bombs in the stockpile would work if needed.
"The fact the lab did as well as it did post-Cold War is because of Domenici’s drive and his power to make that happen," Hecker said by phone from Stanford University, where he serves as co-director of the university’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.
Hecker thinks Los Alamos is now facing some of the same questions about its mission and direction that it faced in the early 1990s. In addition to designing RRW, the National Nuclear Security Administration wants to consolidate the nuclear weapons complex and make LANL a permanent plutonium pit factory, capable of producing up to 80 of the radioactive bomb cores per year. The lab has also been dealing with funding challenges and working through a management change — in 2006, a new corporate manager took the helm from the University of California, which had managed the lab since the Manhattan Project.
Domenici helped "save" the labs in the 1990s, according to Hecker. Now he wonders how they will fare without the state’s senior senator.
"What we’ve benefited from is that both of our senators were in very powerful positions," Hecker said, noting that Bingaman and Domenici lead their respective parties in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees U.S. national laboratories. "We will no longer have that. We won’t be covered on both fronts."
Not everyone agrees that the labs are suffering the same identity crises they suffered in the 1990s. Gusterson thinks that budgetary concerns notwithstanding, the labs "seem pretty stable" thanks in large part to the program that Domenici helped usher in 14 years ago.
"Stockpile stewardship has really redefined (the labs)," Gusterson said. "Most of the weapons scientists I know have really bought into the program and ideology that come with it. So the labs are coasting."
Los Alamos Study Group executive director Greg Mello, a lab critic, agrees that Los Alamos doesn’t have "the sense of vertigo" it had at the end of the Cold War. But with Domenici’s help, it has become unnecessarily bloated, he said.
"It’s either spoken or tacitly assumed by everyone I speak with in Washington that nuclear policy is substantially driven by pork barrel interests," Mello said, suggesting that Domenici’s support for RRW, expanded plutonium pit production and a new multi-billion dollar plutonium lab at LANL are but the latest examples.
"Senator Domenici has been trying to commit the country to a program of new design and production that would keep the laboratory large forever," he said.