The department of Energy is pushing to modernize nuclear weapons. (Photo: Pierre J. / flickr)
Atlanta, Georgia - Despite statements by U.S. President Barack Obama that he wants to see the world reduce, and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons, the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration continues to push forward on a programme called Complex Modernisation, which would expand two existing nuclear plants to allow them to produce new plutonium pits and new bomb parts out of enriched uranium for use in a possible new generation of nuclear bombs.
Initiated under the George W. Bush administration, Complex Modernisation - referred to by anti-nuclear activists as "the Bomb-plex" - would "transform the plutonium and uranium manufacturing aspects of the complex into smaller and more efficient operations while maintaining the capabilities NNSA needs to perform its national security missions," according to a report by the NNSA in the Federal Register.
"The main purpose of the Complex Modernisation programme is to maintain nuclear production capacity for the U.S.," Ralph Hutchison of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance told IPS, arguing that the talk of modernisation obscures the real objectives of the programme.
"There are pieces of the modernisation scheme that might address environmental safety or health concerns, or structural integrity of old buildings that might need to be looked at," he acknowledged.
But the more controversial aspect is the creation of a new nuclear production infrastructure at two sites. First is infrastructure for production of new plutonium pits - the central core of nuclear weapons - at the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico, to replace what the NNSA argues is an aging U.S. nuclear stockpile.
According to its 2009 10-year plan obtained by IPS, the new site could produce 80 plutonium pits per year.
Second, is expansion of enriched uranium processing at the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
"Complex Modernisation" is the latest public relations slogan for the NNSA's plan; previously it was called Complex 2030 and then Complex Transformation.
The NNSA held two years of public hearings on the Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (SPEIS) it was required to produce under the National Environmental Policy Act for Complex Modernisation.
At a hearing attended by this reporter in November 2006 at the Savannah River Site in North Augusta, South Carolina - which was initially considered for the new plutonium pits production - NNSA spokesman Ted Wyka told IPS the agency wanted "to identify a site to build and locate a consolidated plutonium centre, a place where we're going to do manufacturing, production, as well as research and development and surveillance."
"This (SPEIS process) isn't about the types and levels of weapons. That is a presidential decision which is funded by Congress. This is to develop the infrastructure, and to transform the infrastructure," Wyka said. "Our job is to make sure we have the right complex to meet those national security requirements."
The NNSA's final report on the SPEIS process - essentially approving its own "preferred alternative" - was published in December 2008 in the Federal Register, just two weeks before President Obama's inauguration. Here, the NNSA noted that, "With respect to plutonium manufacturing, NNSA is not making any new decisions regarding production capacity until completion of a new Nuclear Posture Review in 2009 or later."
Anti-nuclear activists are looking to Obama's upcoming Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) - which U.S. presidents have conducted at the beginning of their term since Bill Clinton - to set a new course for nuclear weapons policy for the U.S.
Obama will face a decision regarding whether to carry out the production of new plutonium pits, the planning of which was initiated under the Bush administration.
Obama will also face a decision about the proposed new uranium processing in Oak Ridge.
"They want to replace several buildings with one fancy new high-tech 3.5-billion-dollar building they're calling the Uranium Processing Facility," Hutchison said. "And similarly to what [the Federal Register stated] about the plutonium, although they haven't printed this yet, they're waiting on the NPR numbers to come in," before they seek to begin construction.
In the meantime, while Obama works on his NPR, the planning and design of the two new facilities continues.
Obama "included 55 million dollars in his budget for planning for the uranium processing facility in Oak Ridge. What people told him was, if you don't put this much in it, the whole [Complex Modernisation] programme collapses. We need enough money to keep the team together until we make the decision. Congress has doubled that; it's just gone through the process," Hutchison said.
However, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process specific to the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge was "put on hold", Hutchison said.
"Since February, every month they say they're going to release it next month. They can't put it out, because they need to say why they need to build this bomb plant or how big it needs to be. They can't do that without the numbers from the NPR," he noted.
"They have an internal struggle. Obama's saying and doing all these things moving towards a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, but the Department of Defence wants to keep building bombs. All the defence contractors, everybody's making money off of building bombs, they're in the DOD up to their necks. They want that number to come out," Hutchison said.
"They want us to get sucked into this word 'transformation,' as if we're forward looking; or 'modernisation' - what's wrong with modernisation? It's still the Bomb-plex. It's still a cover for allowing us to continue to make bomb parts like pits... it's old wine in new bottles," Bobbie Paul, executive director of Georgia Women's Action for New Directions (WAND), told IPS.
Meanwhile, as previously reported by IPS, Obama has made at least two important international speeches concerning nuclear weapons, in which he has said that the U.S. and the world must work towards being completely free of nuclear weapons.
"I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," Obama said in a speech in Prague on Apr. 5.
"To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty," Obama said.
One hundred and eighty-one other nations have signed and 149 have ratified the treaty.
Last week, Obama became the first U.S. president to chair a U.N. Security Council summit, where a resolution was passed aimed at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.
Obama has signaled his support for a significant shift towards disarmament as part of his upcoming NPR. In addition, Obama said he wants the U.S. and Russia to significantly reduce their nuclear weapons as part of the renewal of the Russia-U.S. Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
However, so far Obama has not taken any steps to stop Complex Modernisation in its tracks and has not addressed the NNSA's plans to develop new nuclear weapons or refurbish old ones. Advocates worry this means new facilities to produce or refurbish nuclear bombs are still on the table.
"It's kind of double-talk. We're talking about reducing our arsenal and not being able to test, but we still have so many bombs on hair-trigger alert... [Complex Modernisation] is another title to give NNSA permission to build new bombs. It flies in the face of what he's told the rest of the world," Paul said.
Advocates worry that Obama - who treads a rocky path and wants a second term in office - may be willing to compromise on Complex Modernisation in return for ratification of the CTBT in the U.S. Senate.
Ratification - which failed in 1999 by 18 votes, receiving only 49 - will require at least 67 votes in the Senate. This means the entire Democratic Caucus, including the two independents, and at least seven Republicans will have to support the measure.
"There's been some talk, in order to get those treaties ratified, some people might allow some new nuclear research and production to go on. [Our position] is no, we stand by Obama. We need to do things consistent with a nuclear-free world," Paul said.
The NNSA did not immediately return two phone calls from IPS seeking comment.