Abolish Civilian Control Over Nukes?

Well, it appears that one of the first things the Obama-Biden Office of Management and Budget has done is to instruct the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy to jointly "assess the costs and benefits of transferring budget and management" of our nuclear weapons research, development, test and production programs and associated facilities from DOE to DOD, "beginning in FY 2011."

Under the terms of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, the responsibilities for all aspects of our nuclear energy related programs – not just nuclear weapons related – were invested in a civilian agency, the Atomic Energy Commission.

The commission, itself, was comprised of five full-time civilian presidential appointees and a civilian General Manager who administered the day-to-day operations of four divisions: research, production, engineering and military applications.

The Director of the Division of Military Application was required to be a serving member of the armed forces, and the Act established a Military Liaison Committee, comprised of Pentagon representatives, whose function was to provide the AEC its military requirements.

Finally, the Act established the truly extraordinary Joint [House-Senate] Committee on Atomic Energy, endowed with both authorization and appropriation responsibilities.

The Act further authorized the President to direct the AEC "from time to time" to transfer AEC civilian-produced nuclear "weapons to the armed forces for such use as he deems necessary, in the interest of national defense."

Under the Act, the AEC was to be the "exclusive owner" of its facilities, but could let contracts to operate them. Hence, the AEC continued to contract with the Board of Regents of the University of California to operate – essentially pro bono – the Los Alamos nuclear-weapons design laboratory, and persuaded AT&T to establish the Sandia Corporation, to operate – essentially pro bono – the AEC nuclear-weapons engineering facility in nearby Albuquerque.

(Even the Soviet Union – to the extent it could – essentially replicated our model, with its important civilian control over all aspects of nuclear energy.)

Enter the anti-everything-nuclear activist crowd and the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, which abolished the AEC and the associated Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, established the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to "regulate" the bejezus out of the nuclear power industry, and established something called the Energy Research and Development Administration, which incorporated – in addition to programs to develop energy-efficient refrigerators – nuclear weapons research, development, test and production programs.

Well, it’s been all downhill since then.

Now, when the Warsaw Pact disintegrated in 1989, President Bush the Elder unilaterally began to withdraw all our tactical nukes – originally developed and forward deployed to compensate for our perceived lack of manpower in a NATO-Warsaw Pact war in Europe – and return them to their civilian parents for dismantlement, recovery and eventual peaceful disposition of the fissile material.

Soviet Union biggie Gorbachov, unilaterally, began doing the same. And under the so-called Nunn-Lugar Act of 1991, Congress even authorized Bush the Elder to assist the Russians – who were in the process of becoming custodians of all Soviet nuclear energy programs, both civilian and military – do the same.

Now, Bush the Elder believed we still needed nukes, not nearly so many, but some new types of nukes for the Post-Cold War period.

In the fall of 1991, two civilian nuclear-weapons scientists described four new types of nukes in "Countering the Threat of the Well-armed Tyrant."

  • 10-ton-yield "micro-nukes," robust ground penetrating nukes to destroy underground bunkers
  • 100-ton-yield "mini-nukes," to counter – exo-atmospherically – incoming nuclear warheads
  • 1000-ton-yield "tiny-nukes," for "battlefield" use
  • large-yield "EMP-nukes," for generating – exo-atmospherically – high power electromagnetic pulses

But then the Clinton-Gore anti-everything-nuclear crowd came to power and began to not only get rid of our entire existing nuke stockpile, but attempted to ensure that we could never again design, build or test new nukes.

For two years, until the Republicans took control of both Houses, the Democrat-controlled Congress did Clinton-Gore’s bidding on nukes. They even adopted a total prohibition against "research and development which could lead to the production by the United States of a low-yield nuclear weapon … [that is] a nuclear weapon that has a yield of less than five kilotons."

But, last October, then Bush-Cheney Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in a key speech before the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, announced he was setting up a study group under former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger to make recommendations about the future goals of our nuclear-weapons programs and about who ought to be charge of implementing those goals.

Gates claimed that the United States ceased developing new (or improved) nukes in the 1980s and ceased producing nukes (or the makings thereof) altogether in the 1990s, and has conducted no "full-up" tests – proof of concept, vulnerability, survivability or safety – since 1992.

Of course, as a former CIA Director, Gates knew the same claims could be made about Russia’s nuke programs.

Yet Gates went on to claim that

"Currently, the United States is the only declared nuclear power that is neither modernizing its nuclear arsenal nor has the capability to produce a new nuclear warhead. The United Kingdom and France have programs to maintain their deterrent capabilities. China and Russia have embarked on ambitious paths to design and field new weapons. To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program. …" 

"Let me be clear: The program we propose is not about new capabilities – suitcase bombs or bunker-busters or tactical nukes. It is about safety, security, and reliability. It is about the future credibility of our strategic deterrent.  And it deserves urgent attention. We must take steps to transform from an aging Cold War nuclear weapons complex that is too large and too expensive, to a smaller, less costly, but modern enterprise that can meet our nation’s nuclear security needs for the future."

Okay, is beginning to take urgently those steps recommended by now Obama-Biden’s Secretary of Defense Gates what the Obama-Biden OMB has just directed DOE and DOD to do?

Author: Gordon Prather

Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.