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Vice President Biden on the Role of the National Weapons Laboratories

Richard M. Jones
Number 27 - February 25, 2010  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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The essential role that the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories have in securing America's national security was highlighted in remarks by Vice President Joseph Biden to the National Defense University on February 18. In a speech entitled "The Path to Nuclear Security: Implementing the President’s Prague Agenda," Biden described the Administration's strategy for protecting America from nuclear threats by strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, seeking agreement on a new START treaty, preventing nuclear proliferation, stopping nuclear terrorism, and working toward the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

As outlined in a previous FYI, the Administration has requested an increase of 13.4 percent in the budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration. The Vice President's remarks describes the rationale for this increase, noting previous employment losses at the laboratories, and the need to modernize their facilities:

"As we’ve said many times, the spread of nuclear weapons is the greatest threat facing our country.

"That is why we are working both to stop their proliferation and eventually to eliminate them. Until that day comes, though, we will do everything necessary to maintain our arsenal.

"At the vanguard of this effort, alongside our military, are our nuclear weapons laboratories, national treasures that deserve our support. Their invaluable contributions range from building the world’s fastest supercomputers, to developing cleaner fuels, to surveying the heavens with robotic telescopes.

"But the labs are best known for the work they do to secure our country. Time and again, we have asked our labs to meet our most urgent strategic needs. And time and again, they have delivered.

"In 1939, as fascism began its march across Europe, Asia, and Africa, Albert Einstein warned President Roosevelt that the Nazis were racing to build a weapon, the likes of which the world had never seen. In the Southwest Desert, under the leadership of Robert Oppenheimer, the physicists of Los Alamos won that race and changed the course of history.

"Sandia was born near Albuquerque soon after the Second World War and became our premier facility for developing the non-nuclear components of our nuclear weapons program.

"And a few years later the institution that became Lawrence Livermore took root in California. During the arms race that followed the Korean War, it designed and developed warheads that kept our nuclear capabilities second to none.

"These examples illustrate what everyone in this room already knows – that the past century’s defining conflicts were decided not just on the battlefield, but in the classroom and in the laboratory.

"Air Force General Hap Arnold, an aviation pioneer whose vision helped shape the National War College, once argued that the First World War was decided by brawn and the Second by logistics. 'The Third World War will be different,' he predicted. 'It will be won by brains.'

"General Arnold got it almost right. Great minds like Kennan and Oppenheimer helped win the Cold War and prevent World War Three altogether.

"During the Cold War, we tested nuclear weapons in our atmosphere, underwater and underground, to confirm that they worked before deploying them, and to evaluate more advanced concepts. But explosive testing damaged our health, disrupted our environment and set back our non-proliferation goals.

"Eighteen years ago, President George H.W. Bush signed the nuclear testing moratorium enacted by Congress, which remains in place to this day.

"Under the moratorium, our laboratories have maintained our arsenal through the Stockpile Stewardship Program without underground nuclear testing, using techniques that are as successful as they are cutting edge.

"Today, the directors of our nuclear laboratories tell us they have a deeper understanding of our arsenal from Stockpile Stewardship than they ever had when testing was commonplace.

"Let me repeat that - our labs know more about our arsenal today than when we used to explode our weapons on a regular basis. With our support, the labs can anticipate potential problems and reduce their impact on our arsenal.

"Unfortunately, during the last decade, our nuclear complex and experts were neglected and underfunded.

"Tight budgets forced more than 2,000 employees of Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore from their jobs between 2006 and 2008, including highly-skilled scientists and engineers.

"And some of the facilities we use to handle uranium and plutonium date back to the days when the world’s great powers were led by Truman, Churchill, and Stalin. The signs of age and decay are becoming more apparent every day.

"Because we recognized these dangers, in December, [Energy] Secretary Chu and I met at the White House with the heads of the three nuclear weapons labs. They described the dangerous impact these budgetary pressures were having on their ability to manage our arsenal without testing. They say this situation is a threat to our security. President Obama and I agree.

"That’s why earlier this month we announced a new budget that reverses the last decade’s dangerous decline.

"It devotes $7 billion to maintaining our nuclear stockpile and modernizing our nuclear infrastructure. To put that in perspective, that’s $624 million more than Congress approved last year—and an increase of $5 billion over the next five years. Even in these tight fiscal times, we will commit the resources our security requires.

"This investment is not only consistent with our nonproliferation agenda; it is essential to it. Guaranteeing our stockpile, coupled with broader research and development efforts, allows us to pursue deep nuclear reductions without compromising our security. As our conventional capabilities improve, we will continue to reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons.

"Responsible disarmament requires versatile specialists to manage it.

"The skilled technicians who look after our arsenal today are the ones who will safely dismantle it tomorrow.

"And chemists who understand how plutonium ages also develop forensics to track missing nuclear material and catch those trafficking in it."

After describing the Administration's efforts in other areas related to nuclear security, the Vice President concluded his remarks by saying:

"Some friends in both parties may question aspects of our approach. Some in my own party may have trouble reconciling investments in our nuclear complex with a commitment to arms reduction. Some in the other party may worry we’re relinquishing capabilities that keep our country safe.

"With both groups we respectfully disagree. As both the only nation to have used nuclear weapons, and as a strong proponent of non-proliferation, the United States has long embodied a stark but inevitable contradiction. The horror of nuclear conflict may make its occurrence unlikely, but the very existence of nuclear weapons leaves the human race ever at the brink of self-destruction, particularly if the weapons fall into the wrong hands.

"Many leading figures of the nuclear age grew ambivalent about aspects of this order. Kennan, whose writings gave birth to the theory of nuclear deterrence, argued passionately but futilely against the development of the hydrogen bomb. And Robert Oppenheimer famously lamented, after watching the first mushroom cloud erupt from a device he helped design, that he had become ‘the destroyer of worlds.’

"President Obama is determined, and I am as well, that the destroyed world Oppenheimer feared must never become our reality. That is why we are pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. The awesome force at our disposal must always be balanced by the weight of our shared responsibility.

"Every day, many in this audience help bear that burden with professionalism, courage, and grace.

"A grateful nation appreciates your service. Together, we will live up to our responsibilities. Together, we will lead the world. "

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095