The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is the agency within the DOE responsible for maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, and the ability to design and test new nuclear warheads should the president decide to acquire them. When Congress established the NNSA in 2000, it also created an independent, external technical advisory committee. This committee, formed in 2001, had a membership that included a number of distinguished physicists and technical experts with extensive knowledge of nuclear weapons, as well as former government officials and retired senior military officers. The committee was summarily abolished in June 2003.1
Some of the physicists on the committee had published articles explaining that nuclear weapons have only a limited capability to destroy deeply buried targets and, furthermore, that such attacks would inevitably produce a great deal of radioactive fallout. This is not a controversial opinion; experts at the national nuclear weapons laboratories agree that it is a relatively simple and well-understood consequence of basic physics.2
Nevertheless, a senior NNSA official expressed displeasure about the articles to the authors, presumably because the administration’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review called for development of such weapons and President Bush’s FY04 budget included funds for research on these so-called nuclear “bunker busters.” The NNSA administrator has justified the abolition of the committee because there is “no shortage of advice” and “there are a lot of physicists who work” at the weapons labs.3 That, of course, has always been true, and yet cold war presidents from Eisenhower to Nixon understood that such a serious and dangerous subject requires the advice of outstanding experts independent of the government.
- J. Dawson, “Disbanding NNSA Advisory Panel Raises Concerns,” Physics Today, September 2003.
- R. Nelson, 2002, Low-Yield Earth-Penetrating Nuclear Weapons, Science and Global Security 10(1):1-20.
- Dawson, Physics Today.