A Nuclear Arms Race with Ourselves

SANTA FE - For the first time in more than a decade, the Department of Energy signaled in its budget the agency's intent to build wholly new thermonuclear warheads.

The DOE backpedaled furiously after its budget request was shown to set as a goal the building of an automated nuclear-weapons factory to make "new-design pits."

"It's in error," said Robin Staffin, senior adviser to DOE Sec. Bill Richardson. DOE officials edited the phrase "new-design" out of their budget last week, substituting the words "replacement weapons pits."

Replacement by new pits? DOE was spinning a third sentence structure calling its proliferation "replacement pits for stockpiled (existing) warheads."

"There is no change in policy relative to the design or fabrication of new warheads and associated plutonium pits," DOE's weapons chief, Brig. Gen. Thomas Gioconda, said on Feb. 22. Plutonium pits are the radioactive guts of H-bombs.

Weapons experts say they would never send a newly designed pit into the arsenal without a full-blown bomb test, which is prohibited by executive order.

"If you cannot test, you cannot develop new warheads," former Assistant Defense Secretary Harold Smith said in 1996. Of course the Senate voted down the Test Ban Treaty, and a new president can rescind the order.

The DOE denies it is designing new H-bombs, but its 1997 policy statement said, "Nuclear weapons in the enduring stockpile will eventually be replaced. (New system development may be needed even to maintain today's military characteristics.) This work is anticipated to begin around 2010."

Source: Albuquerque Journal, Feb. 24, 2000.

- John LaForge