Reading Room

Wrong Medicine Prescribed for What Ails Weapons Labs

by Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' July 1999 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

Let no one say that politics does not offer up a bounty of irony.

The nation's nuclear weapons design labs at Livermore and Los Alamos are embroiled in a scandal over U.S. nuclear secrets that have allegedly been leaked to China. Yet the individual scientist at the center of this particular maelstrom has not been charged with any crime let alone convicted as of this writing.

It is well understood by weapons physicists and their critics alike that the term "nuclear secrets" is a bit of an oxymoron. When any of the nuclear-armed states makes a significant advance in its weaponry, the how-to information becomes known to other interested nations within five years. So says Edward Teller, co-inventor of the hydrogen bomb and co-founder of Livermore Lab, to give but one example.

Weapons design data leaks out in numerous small dribbles: in the publication of unclassified papers on nuclear phenomena relevant to weapons advances, in the margins of discussions between scientists at international seminars and conferences where one mistakenly believes the other already knows a piece of information, and so on. Furthermore, once an interested nation knows that a particular advance in a warhead design is possible, its physicists can postulate pathways and conduct experiments to come up with the same result independent of leaked information.

These facts have enormous implications when one considers the nuclear proliferation risks of the U.S. "Stockpile Stewardship" program.

It is a central goal of "Stockpile Stewardship" to attract more University and other researchers to weaponeering by providing facilities, like the National Ignition Facility and supercomputers, along with the financial means to conduct unclassified experiments that yield data of interest to the nuclear weapons program. Weapons designers call this "spin back" as non-military sources are used for military purposes, the opposite of "spin-off." Common sense tells us that anything of use to the U.S. nuclear weapons program is likely to be of some interest to other countries with a technological base (e.g., a nuclear reactor) and nuclear aspirations.

Moreover, the U.S. government has been, and is now, officially sharing our "nuclear secrets" selectively with other countries. Exactly with which countries we share what information shifts over time as our geopolitical goals and alliances change. "Stockpile Stewardship" will exacerbate the situation. Our government has made promises, both formal and whispered, regarding NIF and other "Stewardship" data to a number of countries. This needs to be called by its real name - nuclear proliferation.

Practically the only thing that can be said for certain about the security scandal at the labs is that current U.S. nuclear weapons policy will lead to more nuclear proliferation, with or without espionage. Yet, "Stockpile Stewardship" is just about the only angle not being covered by the mainstream news media, the pundits or Congressional hearings.

Cold Warriors and Agendas

Witness the hearings going on now in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Testifying in the Senate on the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board Report, the chair of the panel that produced the report, former Republican Senator Warren Rudman characterized the weapons labs as having a "culture of arrogance" that contributed to security leaks and needed to be reformed. A chorus then went up from Rudman and Senators Pete Domenici (R-NM) and John Kyl (R-AZ) to reward that arrogance by giving Defense Programs and its weapons labs semi-autonomous status and increased authority within DOE- making the scandal-ridden bureaucracy even more self-regulating and less accountable than at present.

Later in that day, when Rudman appeared before the House with his same autonomy message, Rep. Dingell (D-MI) brought a small measure of reality to the discussion when he declared: "None of us wants to use these serious security problems as an excuse to put the inmates in charge of the asylum."

Watchdog groups including Tri-Valley CAREs were quick to respond, charging the Republican proposals to "reorganize" DOE were really an attempt to go "back to the future," returning the agency to the bad old days when Defense Programs was in charge of its own environment, safety and health programs - and massive contamination in communities across the nation, including in Livermore, was the result.

Then, almost as if scripted to underscore our objections, Domenici offered a reporter the name of someone he thought might run the new, semi-autonomous weapons agency, James Schlesinger. Schlesinger directed the Atomic Energy Commission, the notorious predecessor agency to the DOE. More recently, he has been writing editorials advocating a return to full-scale nuclear testing.

The truth is that DOE's Defense Programs, which still generates huge volumes of plutonium and other nuclear waste, as well as chemical waste, has been unable and unwilling to protect the environment and the public. Past scandals connected to nuclear weapons programs have included milk supply contamination from above ground testing, radiation experiments on humans and the dumping of nuclear wastes directly into streams, rivers and the ocean floor.

The best way to address mismanagement at the nuclear weapons labs is more oversight, not less. Weapons programs need to be held accountable to the public. Unfortunately, that is not the tenor of discussion going on this month in the hearing rooms and halls of Congress.

In a related development, the head of Defense Programs, Vic Reis, was rumored to be a supporter of the Republican proposals. This put him in direct conflict with his boss, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who has been testifying against the reorganization proposals - and in favor of his own plan - at every opportunity. Reis resigned, effective July 30.

On June 25, the FBI put forward its own proposal to benefit from the spy scandal. The plan calls for a separate FBI division for counterintelligence to root out spies and protect our nation's nuclear secrets.

One wonders, what if the morning papers reported some fine day that the FBI has arrested the entire U.S. weapons establishment for sharing sensitive "Stockpile Stewardship" data? Naw, probably not.

(Copies of the Rudman report, letters, press releases and more are available on request.)