Nuclear Weapons Just Not Sexy Anymore

01/10/2011 10:34 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The incarnation of "sexy," that is, that cropped up a few years ago: exciting or trendy in a general, not erotic, way. That settled, let's move on to a paper that Christopher Ford wrote for the Hudson Institute in which he weighs, in classic nuclear-strategist mode (bearing in mind that Hudson was founded by its most notorious example, Herman Kahn), the merits of launch on warning (LOW).

To refresh your memory, LOW refers to a nuclear state launching a retaliatory strike when it believes that it has detected nuclear weapons headed towards it soil. In another words, the attacked state isn't waiting around for the decisive confirmation that detonation constitutes. Needless to say, accidents happen. (The most famous was in 1983 when Soviet ballistics officer Stanislav Petrov was brave enough to act on his judgment that an alarm supposedly informing him that the United States had launched a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union was false.) Ford speculates on:

the counter-intuitive possibility that progress since the end of the Cold War in reducing the perceived importance and strategic centrality of nuclear weapons and delivery systems [aka missiles -- RW], and the attention given them within the military hierarchy, may itself be increasing accident risks.

Say what? Ford explains.

Already, for instance, it would appear that the gradual [reduction] of the perceived importance of nuclear missions within the U.S. military -- and the degree to which nuclear specialties have gone from being considered a badge of elite distinction to a career backwater relative to "real" warfighting or exotic emerging arenas such as outer space and cyberspace -- has helped produce a more accident-prone culture in the nuclear components of the U.S. military. [Such as] the incident in 2007 in which nuclear-armed cruise missiles were mistakenly loaded aboard a B-52 bomber and flown for several hours across the United States.

As hawks and Republican congresspersons are fond of reminding us, this phenomenon seems to apply to the fields of nuclear design and engineering as well. Much of the current workforce is approaching retirement and few young people seem interested in joining a field that seems like it's trending down. That is, if you believe that New START is a disarmament treaty rather than a vehicle for ensuring the nuclear-weapons industry is funded to the tune of $180 billion over the next decade. In other words, pro-nuclear-weapons advocates have managed to secure the money; they just need bodies.

This passage from San Francisco Chronicle article, though dated (2003), captures the predicament.

Bruce Goodwin admits he often meets with puzzled stares when he tells young people he designs nuclear bombs for a living and tries to recruit promising scientists, as though he had emerged from an outdated science fiction fantasy.

"People will say to us, 'My God, you still work on nuclear weapons?'" said Goodwin, the head of the weapons program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the East Bay. "I would say, 'Yes, we do.' But it is still a surprise."

"It has become more difficult over the past 10 years to attract the right people."

We solicited the perspective of one-time nuclear chemist Cheryl Rofer, who blogs at Phronesisaical. "My guess is that nuclear weapons are still a pretty exciting prospect for a certain subset of astrophysicists and engineers," she said. As long as they don't get wind of how frustrating working for the national laboratories such as Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Lawrence Livermore can be. Ms. Rofer explains.

Smothering of laboratory activity by safety and other regulations is part of it; the lab management culture is another. . . . Then there's simply a loss of direction, which has been happening since arms control set in and nobody bothered to think about how that should or would affect the national labs. I'm not talking about a simplistic "oh dear, they don't love our bombs any more" but a more pragmatic lack of guidance from the national security apparatus to the labs about where they should [then] be going... That has finally been corrected with New START and the latest [Nuclear Posture Review], but too many problems have already set in for a quick recovery. Another problem is a shift in [Department of Energy] attitudes from collaboration with the labs to an insistence on "managing" them, even if the "managers" have no idea of what is needed. Finally, and perhaps most important, there's been a shift in the lab culture from more collaborative to more competitive among the scientists.

A friend, who has worked on nonproliferation initiatives and is now employed in the field of nuclear energy, weighs in next. This individual wishes to remain anonymous.

Per nuclear weapons work... we saw that people in their 30's were leaving and other people were not accepting positions when offered. From what I have heard -- the reasons are: [Los Alamos] has moved from a place of high technology, pushing-edge science, creative thinking and engagement -- to compliance [meeting regulatory requirements] and not on performance...

When they moved the lab to private contractors they put in place a fee-based performance contract... based upon meeting environmental and safety and security [and] the way [they're] paid is to have the least amount of mistakes and what is the best way to get the least amount of mistakes -- to do the least amount of work.

Echoing Ms. Rofer, she adds:

The management and staff used to be a team -- when I worked there I knew everyone in my management chain to the director. Now it's more... "us against them" ... not so great for cutting edge science.

A disarmament advocate might react, "Great, they're hamstringing themselves in the labs. Works for me." In fact, my friend relates:

Some of the most interesting work is in nonproliferation -- unfortunately with the loss of nuclear weapons capability it is significantly affecting the expertise needed for nonproliferation. The two go hand-in-hand.

In other words, the same, or similar, scientists and technicians needed to design and develop nuclear weapons are also needed to walk them back. She adds:

We ended up at Los Alamos with a large number of people doing nonproliferation work that had no technical backgrounds and it really showed in their analysis.

Meanwhile, writes Ford, about the military in words that could be equally applied to the science side:

... there would seem to be no intrinsic reason that a nuclear force could not remain doctrinally and institutionally "important," superlatively trained and endlessly drilled, well-funded and supplied of state-of-the-art technology, and prized as an "elite" service, even if it shrinks to a small size. Nevertheless, ensuring such continued care, attention, and high-reliability operational effectiveness is apparently not easy, nor is it likely to be anything but expensive.

Nuclear weapons just needs its brand polished. In the end, though, the most natural form of disarmament of all might be attrition. What if they gave a nuclear-weapons program and nobody came?

First posted at the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.