An advisory panel is telling the Department of Energy to consolidate its nuclear-bomb-making facilities into one isolated, secure site to make a new generation of warheads.
The recommendation from the Energy Advisory Board, if adopted by the administration and Congress, would mean a loss of jobs from some of the nation’s historic weapons laboratories, including Oak Ridge, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore.
The report also questions why the department needs three expensive supercomputers, Red Storm at Sandia, Q at Los Alamos and Blue Gene at Livermore.
The nuclear-weapons complex is now spread among five different facilities, including the three design labs, Sandia and Los Alamos in New Mexico, Livermore in California, and two production facilities, the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the Pantex plant near Amarillo, Texas.
“All of the production elements are quite old and antiquated and we propose that all should be replaced,” said David Overskei, chairman of the board’s Nuclear Weapons Complex Infrastructure Task Force and president of Decision Factors Inc. of San Diego.
Overskei said the threat of espionage dictated that the complex be spread out in the 1940s and ’50s, but now the threat is terrorism.
Destroy any of the “five single points of failure” and “you have lost the ability to produce a nuclear weapon,” said Overskei.
Even a “partially successful” terrorist attack on Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, the Y-12 plant or the Pantex site “may cause collateral damage” to the surrounding civilian populations, the report said.
The cost of physical security now consumes 11 percent of the weapons complex’s budget and is expected to rise to 15 percent by 2010, an “unsustainable trend,” the report said.
The report acknowledged the “tremendous science and engineering competence” at Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia, but said, “Nonetheless, the weapons laboratories of the future will likely have smaller nuclear weapons program staff than they have today.”
When one public commenter asked Overskei how they would move all the expertise from the existing sites to one location, he responded, “A lot of the skills and expertise that exists in the current complex is not the expertise you would apply to the complex of the future.”
The report drew a cautious response from Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.
Many of its recommendations “are consistent with DOE initiatives already under way to modernize the nuclear weapons complex and consolidate special nuclear material,” said Bodman in a statement.
But, he added, “Some of the more sweeping proposals could have significant budget impacts that will have to be assessed very carefully.”
Bodman directed Linton Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, to make that assessment.
Overskei said the single weapons-production facility could be built by canceling projects at some of the labs or by adding $1 billion to $2 billion a year to the Energy Department’s budget for the next five to six years.
The report did not recommend a location for the production facility, but mentioned the existing Nevada Test Site as a possibility.
The full report can be accessed at http://www.seab.energy.gov.
(Contact James W. Brosnan at BrosnanJ(at)shns.com)