Final Public START Hearing Focuses on Stockpile Stewardship

Jul 16, 2010

By Sarah Bulley
Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held the last public hearing on New START. As part of the hearing, called to gather testimony on the maintenance of a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal, the directors of the three national nuclear laboratories were invited to speak. Dr. Michael Anastasio, Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory; Dr. George Miller, Director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; and Dr. Paul Hommert, Director of Sandia National Laboratories gave testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee.
In his opening statement, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry spoke about the work that has been undertaken thus far in investigating New START. In open and closed sessions, the committee has “scrutinized the test of the treaty” and reviewed the testimony of government and nonpartisan experts on the benefits of the treaty’s ratification. Senator Kerry also touched on the treaty’s effect on U.S. missile defense, a hot button issue during every committee hearing. Kerry said that testimony has shown that New START will not affect missile defense in any way and such claims unduly hurt the treaty’s essential ratification. He stated
Anyone who opposes this treaty because of alleged restrictions on missile defense needs to explain why his military judgment is better than that of the general in charge of Strategic Command, the general directing the Missile Defense Agency, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and better than the Secretary of Defense, who was appointed to that position by George W. Bush.
Senator Richard Lugar, ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, opened his remarks by recognizing the “indispensible” workof U.S. national laboratories in the field of stockpile stewardship.
In addition to ensuring that our nuclear weapons are safe, secure, and reliable, our laboratories also serve as engines of innovation that we hope will provide new technologies to tackle the vast array of energy, environmental, and medical challenges facing our nation and the world.
Although the national laboratories are not directly affected by the provisions of New START, the treaty has “intensified the debate” on nuclear weapon modernization and stockpile stewardship, key to the missions of U.S. national laboratories.
Dr. Michael Anastasio, Director of Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico spoke first and testified primarily about the Stockpile Stewardship program. Since its inception, the program has demonstrated success, without resorting to nuclear testing. However, the systems are ageing, and will need to be refurbished within the next 25 years to maintain a successful deterrent. Dr. Anastasio said that the language of the President’s Nuclear Posture Review does not constrain the laboratories in performing life extension programs of the nuclear arsenal. In fact, he said, it “provides the necessary flexibility to manage our stockpile with acceptable levels of risk.”
However, even with the positive advances in stockpile management, Dr. Anastasio has concerns. Stockpile Stewardship will require a sustained focus over multiple years, but multiple administrations and congresses. The program’s expectations may also be out of line with the fiscal realities that the U.S. currently faces. He remains “cautiously optimistic” however and urged Congress and the administration to work together to build a nuclear policy consensus.
Dr. George Miller, Director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, followed Dr. Anastasio’s remarks with a statement with similar descriptions of the successes of the Stockpile Stewardship program. Regardless of the successes, decades of work remain to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Dr. Miller said that in addition to the stockpile, the U.S. has the responsibility of sustaining the stewards who maintain the hard work in national laboratories. In addition to adequate funding, Congressional support of the program is essential to maintain the “specialized skills needed to maintain the nuclear deterrent”, Dr. Miller concluded.
Echoing the statements of his colleagues, Dr. Paul Hommert, Director of Sandia National Laboratories, said that he is confident that Sandia can provide the necessary level of support to maintain the U.S. nuclear deterrent. Sandia is responsible for non-nuclear weapons components, ensuring that they perform as required and “remain safe and secure otherwise.” Like Dr. Miller, Hommert stressed that the stewards themselves are a concern for the continued success of the program. Most are near or over the age of 55 and soon to reach retirement. Sandia is “well poised” to support the New START regime and continue the non-nuclear stewardship work it has undertaken, Dr. Hommert said. Moving forward, he sees several keys to success, including a strong surveillance program, stable life extension programs, and an “unyielding attention” to sustaining the key aspects to our capabilities for maintaining the nuclear deterrent.
During the question and answer portion of the hearing the national laboratory directors answered a wide range of questions and reaffirmed their support for the New START. When asked about current U.S. stockpile maintenance compared with that of Russia, Dr. Anastasio said shared information and inspections required by the treaty about American and Russian arsenals would benefit both parties and reduce uncertainties. All the directors stressed that the U.S. stockpile is currently “safe, secure, and effective.”
Senator Corker questioned the funding requirements of Stockpile Stewardship and whether there will be enough money to manage the nuclear stockpile after FY 2011. All of the lab directors said that while it is hard to predict how much is needed from one year to the next because new priorities come up from one year to the next. The $624 million proposed by President Obama for 2011 is an excellent beginning, they all agreed. To close his remarks, Senator Corker said that modernization and stockpile management is, to him, the most important issue with New START ratification.
Senator Kerry said that he hoped to get New START out of committee before the August recess. With only a few more hurdles, it seems likely that timeline will be met, although the seven Republican senators on the Foreign Relations committee have complained about the chairman’s pace. To pass ratification at least 67 Senators will need to vote for the treaty. With all Democrats ready to approve the treaty, at least 8 Republicans will need to approve for New START to pass. As of right now, only Senator Lugar, Ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a strong proponent of nonproliferation, is openly supporting the treaty’s passage. There Foreign Policy reported this week that President Obama and his Administration have been working hard behind the scenes to get more Republican votes from the
Foreign Relations committee and push for a vote before November elections
The timing aspect is crucial because the GOP might want to stall long enough to deny Obama a foreign-policy victory before the November election. Another reason for Republicans to stall could be that they plan to vote for the treaty, but don't want to have to defend it before the elections to conservative voters across the country who are hearing from Romney & co. that the treaty weakens America.