Issue Brief

Nuclear Bailout

A Critique Of the Department Of Energy’s Plans For a New Nuclear Weapons Complex
March 25, 2008 |

The Department of Energy (DOE) plans to undertake an extensive, multi-billion dollar investment in new nuclear weapons facilities and new nuclear warhead designs. The initiative, known as “Complex Transformation,” is unnecessary on strategic and technical grounds, not to mention exorbitantly expensive. The various plans being considered by the DOE have more to do with bailing out the nuclear weapons industry than they do with determining what size complex makes sense in an era of nuclear arms reductions. At a minimum, current proposals should be put on hold until the new president taking office in January 2009 has a chance to enunciate a new nuclear policy. That new policy should then guide any initiative to reshape the nuclear weapons complex.

Costs High, Savings Uncertain

  • Even the DOE’s own estimates suggest that the Complex Transformation initiative will cost well over $200 billion over the next two decades, or one-third more than previous estimates.
  • According to the DOE’s economic consultants, investments in upgrading the weapons complex may not be recouped through savings from more efficient operations until as late as 2060, more than 50 years from now. This suggests that a more affordable, less investment intensive approach to sustaining the complex -- such as a “curatorship” option that would only replace weapons components as needed and would forego any new warhead designs -- makes far more sense than any of the DOE’s current proposals.

Arguments For Complex Transformation Are Deeply Flawed

  • The Department of Energy (DOE) argues that the current nuclear weapons stockpile is aging to the point that existing weapons could become unsafe and unreliable. In fact, a Department of Energy funded study by the highly regarded scientific expert group JASON suggests that current warheads will be reliable for at least another 75 to 100 years.
  • Similarly, DOE’s argument that nuclear weapons facilities are too old is misleading. Although some of the buildings were built decades ago, much of the equipment -- which is the heart of the nuclear weapons complex -- has been regularly repaired, upgraded or replaced.
  • If the main issue is to retain “core competencies” for the design and production of nuclear weapons in case of a renewed nuclear arms race, a ‘curatorship approach’ (cited above) is more than sufficient for the job. Yet DOE has explicitly refused to examine the curatorship option as one of the approaches analyzed in its environmental impact statement for the Complex Transformation initiative.

Strategic Vision Missing In Action

  • At a time when distinguished foreign policy experts from Henry Kissinger and George Shultz to William Perry and Sam Nunn are calling for a “world free of nuclear weapons,” the Department of Energy is not seriously exploring what deep cuts or outright elimination of nuclear weapons would mean for the future of its weapons complex.
  • A U.S. plan to design and build new nuclear weapons and new nuclear weapons factories could spur nuclear proliferation by reducing Washington’s leverage in persuading countries like Iran and North Korea to forego or roll back their own nuclear programs.

For the full text of the issue brief, please see the PDF attached below.

The DOE's plan to invest multi-billion dollars in new nuclear weapons facilities and new nuclear warhead designs is unnecessary on strategic and technical grounds, not to mention exorbitantly expensive.