Department of Energy’s disinformation undercuts US credibility, nonproliferation efforts

On October 27, 2015 a delegation of international visitors including diplomats from Austria, Finland, Jordan, Nigeria, Poland, Singapore, and Sweden, and a NATO representative visited Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.  They were participating in the second Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Transparency Visit hosted by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration that oversees and funds the national labs.

According to Sandia’s public website the international visitors were concerned that U.S. nuclear weapons “modernization” programs are willfully making nuclear weapons more usable and more likely to be used. According to Sandia one of the goals of the visit was to correct this misperception.

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The problem is that there is no misperception. 

I offer that perspective, not as a lifelong critic, but as a 25-year veteran of professional work in America’s nuclear complex.

So-called “life extension” and “modernization” programs are undoubtedly expanding the military applications of US nuclear weapons – and they are intended to do so.  The continued and shameless denial of this fact by officials at the Departments of Energy, State and Defense and the National Laboratories undermines US credibility and fosters distrust while awkwardly seeking to prop up false claims regarding both US adherence to nuclear nonproliferation commitments and transparency within the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

According to Sandia’s press report NNSA Principal Deputy Administrator Madelyn Creedon told the visitors “These life extension programs (LEP) are not providing any new military capabilities. They are replacing all the other parts and pieces of the warhead that just simply don’t last.” Gary Sanders, Sandia’s vice president of Weapons Engineering & Product Realization piled on: “modernization doesn’t do anything to the ability to hit a new target set. It doesn’t change the yield. There are no new targets at risk.”

These statements are blatant falsehoods, directly contradicting commitments made by the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review that U.S. nuclear modernization programs “will not be aimed at developing new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.”   

In actuality, the “life extension” program for the US B61 nuclear bomb will explicitly redesign the bomb to increase its accuracy. The new bomb, known as the B61-12, will be able to strike targets more accurately with a smaller explosive yield and less radioactive fallout with the net result being that it is more likely to be used in a conflict situation crossing the once taboo threshold from conventional to nuclear war.  Lowering the threshold of nuclear war poses the very real threat of rapid escalation in a conflict potentially resulting in the use of many, more destructive nuclear weapons.

Don’t just take it from me. General James Cartwright, the former commander of U.S. Strategic Command and former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently confirmed in an interview with PBS Newshour that the increased accuracy of the new guided B61-12 nuclear bomb could make the weapon “more useable” to the president or national-security making process.  Similarly, in January 2014 former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz confirmed the new military capabilities of the B61-12.

Once deployed in Europe beginning in 2020, the B61-12 will increase the targeting possibilities of the nuclear weapons assigned to NATO by giving them a capability that does not currently exist in Europe, in the process making a nuclear exchange more likely.  Increasing the potential for a European conflict with Russia to escalate does nothing whatsoever to strengthen our security, but it does ratchet up the odds of a conflict getting out of control.

“Warplanners and adversaries could see such nuclear weapons as more useable allowing some targets that previously would not have been attacked because of too much collateral damage to be attacked anyway,” according to Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists. “This could lead to a broadening of the nuclear bomber mission, open new facilities to nuclear targeting, reinvigorate a planning culture that sees nuclear weapons as useable, and potentially lower the nuclear threshold in a conflict.”

During their visit to Sandia, NNSA Principal Deputy Administrator Madelyn Creedon declared to the visitors, “Transparency is a vital element of U.S. NPT diplomacy and in building confidence among our NPT partners in the management of the US nuclear stockpile and the measurable progress the United States is making toward implementation of our Article VI commitments under the Treaty.”

Touting the benefits transparency while providing disinformation to foreign visitors, including US allies, does reputational and diplomatic damage to the United States.  Worse still is the reality that this deceitful public relations campaign is being waged in an effort to improve the case that the US is living up to its legal obligation under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to pursue the elimination of nuclear weapons.  The unfortunate truth of the US nuclear weapon “modernization” program is that it clearly demonstrates that the United States plans to build more and “better” nuclear weapons for at least the next 30 to 50 years.

Doyle is a former nonproliferation analyst at Los Alamos National Laboratory