Most Americans aren't expecting much out of Washington these days, given the prevalence of partisan gridlock and the power of special interest money. But positive action is possible even in this climate, as evidenced by the recent decision to zero out funding for an unneeded, overpriced plutonium facility that was slated to be built in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
The facility's name is a mouthful -- the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility (CMRR). It's almost as if the name was chosen to put us all to sleep before we looked too closely at the project, which was designed to increase production capacity for the plutonium components of nuclear warheads.
The most important thing to know about the proposed plutonium facility is that it is completely unnecessary. It would have soaked up billions of dollars that could be better utilized on programs that will actually make us safer. As we reshape our military to meet 21st century threats, creating the capacity to build more nuclear weapons doesn't make strategic or economic sense.
This brings us to the incredible price tag of the proposed facility. Originally slated to cost "only" $400 million, the most recent estimate of the cost of the project is $6 billion. And that doesn't include long-term maintenance costs, which could be 15 times the cost of building the facility. The CMRR is a case study in mismanagement, but unfortunately it is not the only such example in the nation's sprawling nuclear weapons complex.
Despite these overwhelming reasons not to build the CMRR, it would probably be moving ahead even as we speak if it were not for the efforts of a network of good government and arms control groups. The organizations involved include Nuclear Watch New Mexico, the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Project on Government Oversight, Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, and Women's Action for New Directions, among others.
The CMRR is not the only nuclear weapons project that should be reconsidered at a time when deficit reduction efforts are going to force hard choices in government spending. There is the Mixed Oxide, or "MOX" facility, a "nuke plant to nowhere" that is now under construction at the Savannah River site in South Carolina. The purpose of the facility is to take plutonium waste from nuclear weapons plants and use it to create fuel for nuclear reactors. One of the many problems with the project is that it has yet to be determined whether there will be any viable customers for the fuel that the MOX facility is meant to generate. And then comes the price tag: $5 billion to date, with up to $20 billion to go once operating costs and other proposed activities are taken into account (the National Nuclear Security Administration has refused to give an estimate of total costs).
In case you thought it couldn't get any worse, think again. The B-61 bomb project -- an effort to upgrade a current bomb design -- is now estimated to cost $10 billion if it moves forward as planned. A primary purpose of the new B-61 would be to replace 200 U.S. tactical (short-range) nuclear weapons now deployed in Europe. At a time when the United States still has thousands of long-range nuclear weapons that can reach any target in the world, tactical nuclear weapons are remnants of the Cold War that serve no purpose, especially at a time when the goal of U.S. policy should be to rid the world of nuclear weapons altogether.
Terminating projects like the proposed plutonium facility can and should open the door to making smarter choices in spending national security funds. Former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright is just the latest in a series of former military officials and diplomats who believe that we have far more nuclear weapons than we need, and that the ultimate goal should be a world without nuclear weapons. If forced to choose, most current military officers and Pentagon officials would put nuclear weapons at the bottom of their list, because, as Senate Armed Services Committee chair Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) has argued, they are "totally useless" in our current security environment.
The victory in ending the CMRR project should be the first step in eliminating a whole range of unneeded nuclear programs, from bombs to ballistic missile submarines. Doing so would make us safer for less money, an approach that can only gain traction at a time of tight budgets and new security challenges
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