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Complex 2030: DOE's Misguided Plan to Rebuild the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex (2006)

December 2006

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has proposed a major new initiative, Complex 2030, which would entail upgrading the entire U.S. nuclear weapons complex while designing and producing a series of new nuclear warheads. These new weapons, produced through the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, would ultimately replace the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal. Under Complex 2030, the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories would return to the Cold War cycle of nuclear weapon design, development, and production. This initiative would risk a return to underground nuclear testing and would undercut U.S. efforts to limit the development of new nuclear weapons by other countries.

The DOE argues that Complex 2030 is needed to ensure that U.S. warheads remain reliable into the future, to create a responsive weapons complex that could rapidly produce additional warheads, to save money, and to allow the United States to reduce the size of its nuclear arsenal. In fact, none of these rationales holds up under scrutiny.

Rather than needing new nuclear weapons or a new weapons complex, the United States needs a thorough review of its outdated nuclear weapons policy. U.S. nuclear deterrence policy has remained largely unchanged since the Cold War; the United States still maintains hundreds of nuclear missiles on high alert. A full discussion of the purpose and structure of the U.S. nuclear arsenal must precede any new investment in the nuclear weapons complex.

The RRW Program is unnecessary: current nuclear warheads will remain highly reliable for at least 50 years.

All the evidence indicates that the current stockpile of nearly 10,000 nuclear warheads is highly reliable and that it will remain so for many decades. Since 1997, the DOE has annually certified the U.S. nuclear arsenal to be safe and reliable. Concerns about the longer term reliability of these warheads centered on the plutonium "pits" at their core, and the DOE argued that new RRW designs were needed to compensate for the potential effects of plutonium aging. However, last month the JASONs—an independent panel of scientists and engineers that has long advised the U.S. government on nuclear weapons issues—concluded that the plutonium components in U.S. nuclear warheads have lifetimes of at least 85 years, and possibly much longer.  Since the oldest warheads in the U.S. nuclear arsenal are less than 35 years old, U.S. weapons will remain highly reliable for at least the next 50 years. Even then, there would be no need for new weapons designs, since the plutonium pits could simply be remanufactured.

Plans to upgrade the U.S. nuclear weapons complex are unnecessary and costly.

Without the need to replace current U.S. nuclear weapons under the RRW program, the major upgrades planned under Complex 2030 are unnecessary. In particular, there is no need to build a new plutonium pit facility capable of producing 125 pits per year. Even if replacement pits were needed, the Los Alamos National Laboratory already has a pit manufacturing facility (TA-55) capable of producing 30-50 pits per year. This facility could easily replace an arsenal of 2,200 deployed weapons—the number allowed by the Moscow Treaty—over a period of 50 years.

Complex 2030 would also be very expensive. The DOE estimates that the capital investment for the Complex 2030 initiative will exceed $150 billion by 2030. But the Government Accountability Office believes this estimate is too low and has advised Congress to require that the DOE produce an accurate accounting of the capital costs.

Ironically, although Complex 2030 is nominally intended to reduce costs, it would maintain all eight facilities in the nuclear weapons complex, including both weapons design laboratories—Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories.

Under Complex 2030, U.S. nuclear reductions would wait until 2030.

As of 2012, the United States plans to maintain an "enduring stockpile" of approximately 6,000 nuclear weapons, with 2,200 deployed warheads and the remainder in an inactive reserve, or "hedge force." The hedge is intended to allow the United States to rapidly deploy additional warheads in the event of geopolitical change or to replace an entire class of deployed warheads that is discovered to be deeply flawed. Neither rationale is compelling: the possibility of discovering such a flaw is very remote, and it is difficult to imagine a geopolitical event that would require a large-scale increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. DOE has argued that Complex 2030 will allow the hedge to be reduced, but only once the responsive infrastructure envisioned under the plan is largely complete. In fact, both the active force and the hedge could be significantly reduced now without any decrease in U.S. security.

The RRW Program could lead to a resumption of U.S. nuclear testing.

The RRW program would replace current weapons that had undergone nuclear testing with new ones that are untested. However, it is likely that U.S. military leaders or policymakers will balk at deploying untested weapons, leading to pressure for testing these new designs. If this were to occur, other nations would almost certainly resume nuclear testing as well.

Complex 2030 undercuts U.S. efforts to prevent other countries from developing nuclear weapons.

Rebuilding the U.S. nuclear stockpile would send a clear message to the rest of the world that the United States places great value on its nuclear arsenal and intends to maintain both large numbers of nuclear weapons well into the next century and the capability to quickly produce more. Complex 2030 would undermine U.S. efforts to discourage other countries from obtaining nuclear weapons and thereby decrease U.S. security.

For more information, contact Stephen Young, UCS Senior Analyst, at (202) 331-5429.

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