The Trump administration wants to spend billions of dollars it doesn’t have building thousands of plutonium cores it doesn’t need for nuclear warheads that experts say will only destabilize the balance of power between the United States and Russia.
And here’s the kicker. It’s unlikely the U.S. atomic-arms industry has the capacity to build all the plutonium “pits” the administration is determined to order.
But the United States even trying to acquire all those new nukes could spur Russia and China to match the expansion, potentially fueling a nuclear arms race that none of the countries can afford and which would benefit no one.
“The ‘just do it’ nuclear attitude of the Trump administration is likely to set the United States on a path to where we could see an increase of the stockpile for the first time since the 1970s,” Hans Kristensen, a nuclear expert with the Federation of American Scientists, told The Daily Beast.
The plan to build up to 4,000 new plutonium pits is part of the administration’s budget proposal for the Department of Energy’s 2021 fiscal year, which became public this week. The department’s National Nuclear Security Agency, headquartered in Washington, D.C., designs, acquires and stores atomic warheads for the U.S. military.
While overall federal spending compared to 2020 is flat at $4.8 trillion in President Donald Trump’s 2021 proposal, the administration wants to lavish an additional $3.1 billion on the NNSA on top of the $16.7 billion the agency received for 2020, making it one of the few agencies to get a plus-up in the administration’s budget.
The NNSA wants to use 2021 money to kickstart a program that, over a period of nine years, would ramp up to building 80 new pits a year for an eventual total of 4,000 new pits.
“The requirement to produce no fewer than 80 pits per year during 2030 is driven by several factors, including warhead safety, mitigating against risks from plutonium aging and responding to an uncertain future due to renewed global competition,” the NNSA told The Daily Beast in a statement.
Congress ultimately writes budgets for federal agencies, often using the president’s proposal as a starting point. Both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate have described the White House’s budget as a “non-starter.”
But the president isn’t powerless to set spending levels. He can veto Congress’s budgets, potentially leading to legislative stalemates and even government shutdowns.
During the freer-spending decades of the Cold War, the NNSA acquired tens of thousands of pits. As many as 20,000 of them remain in storage at the agency’s Pantex site in Texas, according to Kristensen.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, the NNSA cited “uncertainty” that the agency associated with older pits. But experts said a pit can remain safe and viable for a century or longer.
The United States possesses far more pits than it does actual warheads. The 2011 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty limits America and Russia to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads on just 700 bombers and rockets. But both countries each keep around 2,000 spare warheads in storage.
China’s own nuclear arsenal is much smaller at just a few hundred warheads, according to most estimates.
Extra pits not only give atomic powers the option of quickly reactivating old nukes, they leave open the possibility of building new warheads on top of those that are already deployed or in storage. Pits represent the potential for massive atomic rearmament.
Suddenly building lots of new pits “could spur a nuclear arms race,” Tom Clements, director of Savannah River Site Watch, a South Carolina nuclear watchdog group, told The Daily Beast.
For years, Trump has been telegraphing his lust for more nukes. He once spoke of growing the U.S. nuclear arsenal to tens of thousands of warheads. In his three years in office, he has systematically dismantled an arms-control regime that took decades and delicate negotiation to implement.
Trump freed up the military to develop easier-to-use “low-yield” nukes. He withdrew the United States from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty that banned a whole class of shorter-range, land-based atomic weapons.
Most chillingly, Trump’s administration has signalled that it might allow New START to lapse in February 2021. If it does, the United States and Russia both will be free to deploy more atomic warheads on more rockets and bombers, potentially marking the first reversal in decades of the world’s slow effort to rid itself of nuclear weapons.
The $3-billion plus-up to the NNSA’s budget is Trump’s statement to the world that it not only doesn’t mind runaway nuclear rearmament, it’s actively planning for it. The tens of thousands of plutonium pits already in storage in Texas should suffice to maintain America’s existing nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future.
The only reason the administration would even need new pits is if it plans to develop new warhead types that aren’t compatible with existing pits. “Adding pit production capacity would make it possible to introduce new-design warheads and more of them into the arsenal,” Tom Collina, the director of policy at Ploughshares Fund, an arms-control advocacy group in San Francisco, told The Daily Beast.
Which is not to say the U.S. nuclear-arms industry is ready to churn out new pits. The Department of Energy’s two major weapons facilities probably would struggle to produce a quarter of the pits the NNSA wants.
Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is authorized to build up to 20 new pits per year but has had problems handling plutonium. The lab totally shut down pit-production between 2013 and 2017.
The Savannah River Site on the South Carolina-Georgia border hasn’t completed any major plutonium projects since the 1980s and would require massive investment before it could make even one pit, never mind dozens per year.
“NNSA recognizes that producing no fewer than 80 pits per year no later than during 2030 is an ambitious and aggressive undertaking, and is actively pursuing risk reduction activities to meet this goal,” the agency told The Daily Beast.
Clements is skeptical. “Given that DOE always runs far over budget and far behind schedule under the best of circumstance with complicated projects, having no pit experience and little plutonium-processing experience looms as a recipe for disaster,” he said.
“It would be remarkable if NNSA could get to 20 pits per year,” Phil Coyle, a nuclear expert with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C., told The Daily Beast.
But in merely trying to spend billions of dollars on new pits, the United States signals to the world its intention to preserve and even expand its nuclear arsenal for a century or longer. And if the effort failed, America could start a new atomic arms race without actually building the pits it might need to actually compete in that same arms race.
“From an arms-control point of view, broadcasting that NNSA is trying to double the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, when it is extremely unlikely that NNSA could do it, will bring all of the blowback you’d expect from Russia and China, and no benefits to U.S. security at home,” Coyle explained.
The alternative to the NNSA’s multi-billion-dollar nuke plan is obvious. Save the money. Keep the nukes you’ve got until you can negotiate a reduction in the world’s atomic arsenals. It’s cheaper and, for the whole planet, much safer, as every pit and stored and deployed nuclear weapon is a catastrophic accident waiting to happen.
And it’s not like the alternative plan amounts to some peacenik dream of unilateral disarmament. Without spending a single dollar on new pits, the United States could easily maintain the world’s most powerful nuclear deterrent for generations to come.
“Who is not deterred from attacking us right now that would be if we had a new warhead of some kind?” Collina asked.