In the December edition of Z Magazine, we published a lengthy feature examining the new politics of "anti-nuclear imperialism," a rhetorical strategy of promoting nuclear disarmament in name, while boosting nuclear weapons facilities spending and shoring up a nuclear-armed U.S. global hegemony in actual practice. We mainly focused on the Hoover Institution’s pivotal role in shaping U.S. nuclear weapons policies to the advantage of particular corporations and conservative political constituents, especially the nation’s two nuclear weapons design labs: the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in northern California.
A few weeks after our story in Z, the Wall Street Journal’s January 19, 2010 edition featured a drastically different op-ed by Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn, tellingly entitled "How to Protect Our Nuclear Deterrent." In this essay, they not only lay to rest any doubt about their long-term support for a nuclear-armed American empire, but they call for a surge in spending at the national nuclear weapons laboratories.
Kissinger, Shultz, Nunn, Perry in May 2009
The "Four Horsemen" endorsed the view of a recent Congressional committee on nuclear weapons policy (co-led by Perry), which concluded that "investments are urgently needed to undo the adverse consequences of deep reductions over the past five years in the laboratories’ budgets for the science, technology, and engineering programs that support and underwrite the nation’s nuclear deterrent." That’s in spite of the fact that the labs’ budgets have held fairly steady over that period, hovering at about 1.5 times their Cold War average.
The Four Horsemen’s very public pro-nuclear about-face has been strategically timed. The White House’s "Nuclear Posture Review"—the nation’s guiding framework on the role of nuclear weapons in its overall military strategy—is now being drafted and is due for release in March. Meanwhile, President Obama has indicated that the cornerstone of his nuclear arms control agenda will be a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (a "START follow-on"). Ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is likely to be hoisted to the top of the president’s international agenda in advance of the 2012 election as well.
In this light, the Four Horsemen’s most recent pro-nuclear statement is best read as part of a larger process of political deal-making that will play out in the months to come. LANL and LLNL have long been powerful bulwarks against international treaties that limit nuclear arms development. The leadership at these facilities is attempting to extract the greatest concessions possible from Obama in exchange for their support for any new international agreements.
At the top of the labs’ wish list is a new plutonium bomb core ("pit") manufacturing facility in Los Alamos, called the Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Project. Costing at least $2 billion, CMRR would be capable of manufacturing more than 200 plutonium pits per year. Plutonium pit manufacturing is the pivotal, messy step in creating a new generation of nuclear bombs. That makes CMRR the centerpiece of the nuclear establishment’s plans to renew nuclear weapons production, as even William Perry’s Congressional commission admitted. A new multi-billion dollar uranium enrichment facility at the Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee is also high on the list.
Not only would these facilities help enable a new generation of nuclear arms development, they would reinvigorate the esprit de corps of the entire U.S. nuclear weapons complex, which has been plagued by a sort of existential crisis since the end of the Cold War. The Four Horsemen acknowledge as much in their latest WSJ op-ed. New pit manufacturing and uranium enrichment may be the last, best chance the nuclear weapons complex has of turning back into something like the hive of single-minded determination it often was during its Cold War glory days.
In their effort to win over weapons lab leadership and satiate hawkish Republican Senators, whose support is necessary for the START follow-on to pass, the Obama administration has endorsed a nuclear weapons spending "surge"—the same one called for by Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn. The 10 percent surge appeared in the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2010-11 budget proposal, released on February 1, and it included a large investment in construction of CMRR.
A crucial player in advancing the full-court press is Obama’s undersecretary of Arms Control and International Security at the State Department, former Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-CA). During her tenure in Congress, Tauscher represented California’s conservative 10th Congressional District, where she was widely known for her magnanimous efforts to bring home the bacon for Livermore Laboratory and the wider nuclear weapons complex.
As undersecretary, Tauscher has the green light to broker the new nuclear weapons funding surge on the international front by accomplishing the START follow-on. She may also be the point person for trading a ratified CTBT in exchange for lab authorization to develop the first new nuclear warheads (officially, at least) since the end of the Cold War.
In a speech to the U.S. Strategic Command Deterrence Symposium in late 2009, Tauscher might as well have been quoting the Four Horsemen when she said, "The Obama administration and key stakeholders must address the serious need to bolster the human capital and infrastructure necessary to maintain a credible, safe, secure, and effective nuclear stockpile. As our nuclear arsenal is reduced to its appropriate level, these capabilities will become even more critical."
Such concessions to the nuclear weapons labs make whatever "arms control" measures the Obama administration might achieve worse than useless because they are not pursued as ends in their own right. Instead, they will greatly empower the biggest political obstacle to the pursuit of actual global nuclear disarmament: the U.S. weapons lab intelligentsia.