In the intervening 65 years, our nuclear weapons complex has grown tremendously in size and cost, and managing and maintaining its infrastructure and security seems to have been beyond the capabilities of any government agency. In 1999 the National Nuclear Security Administration, located inside the Department of Energy, was created to manage all aspects of nuclear development, including managing the national laboratories in which research and production of nuclear weapons is carried out.
In 2012, a bevy of problems, including excessive cost overruns, deteriorating facilities, and concerns over security caused Congress to consider legislation that would transfer control of safety, security, and financial compliance of nuclear research from the Energy Department to civilian contractors. However, after a supposedly highly secure weapons site at Oak Ridge was penetrated by peace activists (including a nun), one options now under consideration is transferring the NNSA to the Defense Department. The Senate passed a resolution to create an advisory panel to investigate management of the NNSA. A final report is expected by February 2014.
If the NNSA is transferred to the military, it will be the first time since the Manhattan Project that management of our nuclear weapons complex will not be in civilian hands. I personally find this prospect worrisome, but the issue is not black and white. One might think initially that, under military jurisdiction, the nuclear program will only grow and become more costly. However, it’s not unlikely that the nuclear program would face cuts, as the armed forces have many other spending priorities. Moreover, removing nuclear weapons from the purview of the DOE would allow that department to actually focus on one of the biggest challenges the United States faces in the 21st century: conversion to sustainable and economically viable new energy sources.
The situation is thus complex, and there may be no good solution. Maintaining our current arsenal is incredibly expensive, and in the current economic climate, the cost simply to update the infrastructure is at best unpalatable. If this current dilemma gets played out openly in Congress, and hopefully in the media, it could pave the way for real progress in disarmament. As has so often occurred, peace might break out not for the right reasons, but because the alternative is simply no longer economically viable.
Perhaps the upcoming debate over the NNSA’s future will finally re-engage the public with this issue—something that is long overdue. Then maybe we can move the Doomsday Clock back, further away from midnight.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.