Skip to main content

You are here

Presented to the Institute for Defense Analyses – “Advancing America’s Nuclear Security”

February 10, 2009

Presented to the Institute for Defense Analyses – “Advancing America’s Nuclear Security”Presented by Thomas D'Agostino, Administrator, NNSA

I come to speak with you today about critical issues of America’s nuclear security.

Ensuring the security of the United States and its allies against the nuclear threats of the 21st Century is a critical national security imperative.

Today, however, no national consensus exists on the future role of our nuclear deterrent or on the implications of our nuclear posture for U.S. nonproliferation obligations/objectives.

Nor is there political support for, nor public understanding of the steps needed to ensure a safe/reliable stockpile without testing, and to transform today’s aging Cold War complex.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher has articulated a “way ahead”:

“Our strategic posture should place the stewardship of our nuclear arsenal, nonproliferation programs, missile defenses, and the international arms control regime into one comprehensive strategy that protects the American people.”

The core capabilities and expertise developed over six decades of the nuclear weapons era are clearly linked this “comprehensive strategy.”  In particular, our weapons program has:

  • Enabled critical global nuclear threat reduction efforts,
  • Supported nonproliferation, arms control, and nuclear counterterrorism activities,
  • And it has contributed to a broad array of national security goals beyond nuclear weapons.

But as Ms. Tauscher said, the U.S. nuclear posture must evolve from its Cold War framework to its role as one component of a comprehensive strategy that integrates a number of tools—nuclear deterrence, nonproliferation, arms control and disarmament, nuclear materials control, and nuclear counterterrorism—and lead by example in seeking to reduce nuclear threats worldwide.

How can this best be achieved?

We must find a “middle ground” that could provide a basis for restoring consensus, last achieved during the Cold War, on nuclear policy and its relationship to nonproliferation and arms control.

This is the charge of the Strategic Posture Commission led by Bill Perry and Jim Schlesinger.  I am encouraged by the Commission’s work reflected in its Interim Report released in December.

Let’s recall for a moment the role that nuclear weapons served during the Cold War:

  • Helped to prevent the large-scale wars of aggression that led to tens of millions of deaths,
  • Deterred the use of nuclear weapons against the U.S. and its allies,
  • Assured allies who rely on extended deterrence for their own security.

But today’s security environment is more varied, less predictable, and dependent on local and regional factors.

  • Regional tensions and the potential for major wars, have not gone away,
  • Nuclear weapons remain a factor in the security calculations of several countries, some with increasing emphasis, and
  • Opportunities for states to “go nuclear” may increase with trends of increased global reliance on nuclear power, conceivably leading to a proliferation “tipping point.”

In this security environment, a credible extension of the U.S. nuclear umbrella to allies is at least as important today as it was a decade ago.

Moreover, with growing concerns about nuclear terrorism, renewed focus must be given to preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear warheads or fissile materials.

And we should not expect terrorists to be deterred by threats of retaliation.

However, when coupled with credible nuclear forensics capabilities and declaratory policy, U.S. forces can act to discourage witting state transfers of nuclear warheads or materials to terrorists.

Therefore, as one component of a broad strategy for a safer world, the United States will continue to maintain a nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future and it is my job to make sure the warheads that make up that deterrent are safe, reliable and effective.

Over the coming months, President Obama will be advancing his program to bolster U.S. leadership in reducing global nuclear dangers and achieving strengthened nonproliferation.

Simply by examining the White House web page, we can foresee key elements of his program:

  • Secure Nuclear Weapons Materials in Four Years
  • Strengthen Policing and Interdiction Efforts
  • Strengthen Nuclear Risk Reduction Work at Defense, State, and Energy Departments
  • Convene a Summit on Preventing Nuclear Terrorism
  • Strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
  • Seek Real, Verifiable Reductions in Nuclear Stockpiles, and
  • Work with Russia to Increase Warning and Decision Time, among others.

The DOE will play a critical role in this effort.  Let me explain.

The scientists and engineers at our labs and plants have developed and sustained, over the six decades of the nuclear era, a unique set of skills and capabilities that respond to a much broader array of nuclear security needs, and even security needs beyond nuclear weapons.  Specifically:

  • They provide support to international efforts to control warheads and fissile materials.
  • They provide support to the intelligence community on foreign nuclear weapons programs.
  • They have assessed potential terrorist nuclear designs to inform render safe capabilities.
  • They are developing nuclear forensics capabilities to identify the origin of terrorist nukes and thereby provide means to deter witting state transfers of warheads/materials to terrorists.
  • They provide nuclear incident response and consequence management,
  • And of course they perform R&D to:
    ­ -     detect nuclear warheads/materials being smuggled,
    ­ -     detect proliferant activities, and
    ­ -     strengthen capabilities for treaty monitoring and warhead transparency.

It is essential to retain these core capabilities and broaden and deepen their application to a broader range of security issues beyond nuclear weapons.

In so doing, the common linkages connecting U.S. nuclear force posture, nuclear threat reduction activities, nonproliferation, nuclear counterterrorism, and arms control and disarmament will be strengthened and global security advanced.

As the nation moves to consensus on the deterrent I believe one thing will be clear—we cannot move forward without a strong science, technology, and engineering base to provide a foundation for our decisions.  This technical base is what makes DOE and NNSA different from other organizations.

As our stockpile gets smaller in the future, we will depend on these capabilities even more.  We cannot let our guard down when it comes to maintaining preeminence in science and technology.

In a sense, our job is much more than stockpile stewardship; it is the stewardship of a science and technology base that can respond to a broad array of nuclear security concerns.

Maintaining our nuclear stockpile forms the core of the work, but it is that core that also provides the foundation for the largest non-proliferation program in the world.

It is that core that has allowed us to work with our international partners on the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.

And it is that core that allows us to respond to nuclear emergencies, “render safe” an improvised nuclear device here in the U.S., and make that capability available to international partners.

Nuclear Weapons Capabilities and Infrastructure
Let me now briefly turn to some of the issues that surround our efforts to ensure a safe and reliable nuclear stockpile for as long as the United States requires nuclear forces.

In this regard I face two key challenges.  First, is the certification and assessment of weapons safety and reliability without nuclear testing.  My second key challenge, again one critical to support of our people, is to transform the nuclear weapons complex to a nuclear security enterprise.

Regarding the first challenge, today’s nuclear weapons stockpile is safe and reliable and has not required post-deployment nuclear testing to date, nor is nuclear testing currently anticipated or planned.  Periodically, however, we encounter problems with warheads that in the past would have been resolved with nuclear tests.  By applying state-of-the-art science, technology and experimental capabilities to assessing our nuclear warheads, the Stockpile Stewardship Program has worked well so far to help us to avoid that prospect.

But, as the Directors at our national weapons laboratories have stated, maintaining certification of the finely-tuned designs of an aging Cold War stockpile solely via warhead refurbishments and absent nuclear testing involves increasing risk.

How can we best manage that risk—that is, how best can we ensure that the military capabilities provided by today’s stockpile can be extended into the future?

I believe we have a strategy for managing that risk.  Let me explain.

This tool of a life extension strategy comes in three forms:  warhead refurbishment, warhead component reuse and warhead replacement.

Very generally, in warhead refurbishment, individual warhead components are replaced before they degrade (e.g., due to aging) with components of nearly identical design or that meet the same “form, fit and function.”

Warhead component reuse refers most specifically to the use of existing surplus pits or secondary components from other warhead types.  This approach may permit limited warhead safety and security improvements and some increased margins.

The most controversial of these tools so far has been warhead replacement.  In this approach, some or all warhead components would be replaced with modern designs that are more easily manufacturable, provide increased warhead margins, forego no-longer-available or hazardous materials, improve safety, security and use control, and offer the potential for further overall stockpile reductions.

Each of these approaches (1) provide essentially the same military capabilities as the original warhead, (2) seek enhanced safety, security and use control, (3) sustain or increase component reliability, maintainability, and manufacturability and (4) require initial warhead certification, and annual safety and reliability assessments, that are intended to be carried out without underground nuclear tests.

But perhaps most importantly, it again comes down to our people.  I cannot sustain critical nuclear weapons design and engineering skills and capabilities unless I can, when appropriate, exploit all of the tools in the toolbox in providing “real work” for my people.  The United States has not developed or fielded a modern warhead in over two decades; those who have carried out this work in the past are getting old—most are past retirement age.  If I am going to sustain key skills, now is the time to mentor the next generation of warhead designers and engineers.

I am optimistic that the administration and Congress, over the next year, will come together and provide us the means both to manage risk and ensure the continued excellence of our people.

As I said earlier my second key challenge, again one critical to support of our people, is to transform the nuclear weapons complex to a nuclear security enterprise.

I must strengthen the science and technology base, restore and modernize key R&D and production capabilities and replace aging and unsupportable production facilities that do not meet modern safety standards.

Most urgently, I must respond to the needs of our people who carry out critical and often hazardous work involving plutonium R&D and uranium component manufacturing.

Two facilities—the CMR plutonium R&D facility at Los Alamos and the 9212 facility at Y-12 in Tennessee where we carry out uranium operations—date from the days of the Manhattan Project or shortly thereafter.  Continuing operations in these facilities presents increased risks both to the nuclear weapons mission and to our people.

In December, after two years of study, I made a decision that will transform these two facilities, and associated capabilities, into smaller and more efficient operations.

We will construct and operate the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement—Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos as a replacement for portions of the CMR facility—a structure that is more than 50 years old and faces significant safety and seismic challenges to its continued operation.

In addition, we plan to construct and operate a Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Y-12 as a replacement for existing facilities, again more than 50 years old, that face significant safety and maintenance challenges to their continued operation.

To support the men and women who day in and day out strive for excellence on a hazardous mission that demands perfection, we must confront these two challenges.  For as long as I am in this job, I will be working to do no less.

Despite some uncertainty that may exist in the nuclear community, I am optimistic.

I am optimistic because the core capabilities and expertise developed over six decades in support of nuclear weapons’ programs have advanced global threat reduction efforts and have made possible major advances on nonproliferation, arms reductions and nuclear counterterrorism, and, indeed, have contributed to a broad array of national security goals beyond nuclear weapons.

I am optimistic because I see the next phase of stockpile stewardship leading us into even more discovery and an even better understanding of a smaller, safer, and more secure nuclear deterrent, and with increased confidence in its long-term reliability absent nuclear testing.

I am optimistic because I have seen a renewed debate at the highest levels on our nation’s nuclear security strategy that spans the legislative and executive branches of government, the American public and the international community.

I am optimistic because I am convinced that the work of the Strategic Posture Commission will help to drive Congress and the Administration to consensus on our nuclear security posture.

A significant part of my job will be to participate in this national debate, but even more importantly to lay out a vision for our nation’s capability in all things nuclear.

This vision is based on the reality that the nuclear debate is not just about warheads and the size of the deterrent.  Rather, we must think more broadly about our nuclear security.

In the end it all comes down to people.  It comes down to maintaining the best people in this country, and it comes down to stewardship of the capabilities and skills of our people.

We have what I would call a “perfect storm of opportunity” to achieve our common goal of a safer world.  Let’s be sure to get this right.

Thank you.

Alexandria, VA