What does the nuclear weapons industry talk about when they’re together? I spent three days with 530 government officials, politicians, and corporate contractors in a hotel basement to find out. Part I of this piece, “Articles of Faith,” described some of the themes they addressed: like danger and “deterrence.” Here are some more. (Next…Part III: “The Nuclear Ban Treaty.”)

Part II: Follow the Money

What does the nuclear weapons industry talk about when they’re together? I spent three days with 530 government officials, politicians, and corporate contractors in a hotel basement to find out. Part I of this piece, “Articles of Faith,” described some of the themes they addressed: like danger and “deterrence.” Here are some more. (Next…Part III: “Follow the Money”)

Theme 4.  Luckily, the Mission is well-funded by the US government, a solid, permanent customer. The speakers happily agreed that there is always bipartisan Congressional support, no matter which party is in control. “There’s plenty of money,” said one speaker, “though more wouldn’t hurt.”

Nobody mentioned that one reason for this reliable support is that Republican and Democratic members of Congress receive campaign contributions from the nuclear weapons companies. They didn’t have to. Two members of Congress’s Armed Services Committee spoke at the Summit. Both repeated the ubiquitous refrain about danger, “deterrence,” and urgency.

Senator Deb Fischer (R-NE) came in person and urged speedy modernization of all three legs of the nuclear triad plus N3 (Nuclear Command, Control, Communications). She said, “Our nation has sidelined our Nuclear Enterprise…the bedrock of our national security. The US should heed the motto of President Reagan, Peace Through Strength.” She said the Armed Services Committee will request a “very robust Fiscal Year 2024 budget” for the deterrent. (Her top donor is nuclear weapons contractor Boeing.)

Representative Doug Lamborn (R-CO) told the Summit via Zoom that “everywhere we look, nuclear threats are growing. Our ability to do something about it is, frankly, in question.” (The majority of his campaign contributions come from defense contractors, including nuclear weapons companies L3, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and BAE.)

Nobody quoted General Lee Butler, who was once in charge of the entire US nuclear arsenal as Commander of USSTRATCOM. Butler realized later in life that “deterrence,” while extremely lucrative for its decision-makers, is irrational and immoral. He wrote that the revolving door between military leadership and the corporations who make up 95% of the workforce is “fraught with opportunity for mutual nest-feathering, sweetheart deals, inflated requirements, and massive contracts.”

Butler also described “a relatively small cadre of theorists and strategists who speak with great assurance and authority…in the apocalyptic vocabulary of nuclear deterrence.” Those were the very people I met in the hotel basement.

Theme 5.  We have the coolest toys. Air Force Brigadier General Ty Neuman ecstatically congratulated Northrop Grumman on the unveiling of its new B-21 Raider stealth bomber, described on NG’s website as “the future of deterrence…an advanced aircraft offering a combination of range, payload, and survivability…capable of penetrating the toughest defenses to deliver precision strikes anywhere in the world.” It’s $692 million per plane, and NG expects to sell at least 100.

The Raider is a sleek, spectacularly futuristic machine, specifically designed to deliver conventional munitions as well as nuclear weapons capable of slaughtering millions of civilians in the most horrific ways. General Neuman loves it: “You should all have a poster of it on your wall! It’s an exciting time for the nuclear deterrent. There’s a brand spanking new shiny triad coming soon! It’s fantastic!”

But that’s just a delivery system. What about the bombs themselves?

Theme 6.  To fulfill the Mission, we need to make 80 new plutonium pits (bomb triggers) per year. It’s an admittedly “Herculean” task, “like changing the tires while driving the car” and “like upgrading a jetliner in flight with 300 passengers on board.” There were whole sessions dedicated to overcoming obstacles like the “atrophied” post-Cold War infrastructure, the inadequate workforce, the unpredictable supply chain, and the “excessive” safety regulations that slow everything down.

It used to be easier. Back in the Cold War, before the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado was raided by the FBI and shut down in 1989 over environmental regulation violations (the first time one government agency raided another), it was cranking out 1000-2000 pits per year. These are now 30 or 40 years old, and they must be replaced for the “deterrent” to remain convincing.

Or do they? It’s controversial. The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (CACNP) says “expanded plutonium pit production is not necessary to maintain the safety or reliability of the existing U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile,” and that the 1350 pits already in use, despite being 30 to 40 years old, are expected to last at least 100 years.

Some people at the Summit seemed to share those doubts, but NNSA’s Marvin Adams brushed them aside, saying, “if somebody just gives you a blanket statement, like pits last a hundred years…you might question whether they know all that much about what they’re talking about.”

Theme 7.  We can do it if we all work together! Workforce: We need bigger salaries and better perks to recruit and retain employees, and we must continually remind them of the sacredness of the Mission. Skills: There’s a whole sub-industry dedicated to passing on complicated knowledge to inexperienced newcomers. Cooperation: There’s a new report called the “Enhanced Mission Delivery Initiative” aimed at reducing “friction in the system” among the various parts of the industry — but the EMDI itself was described as a “moon shot” that has to blast through federal bureaucracy. Waste: Nuclear weapons (and nuclear power) “won’t be green until we solve waste disposal.”

Nobody asked whether working together to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth forever might be safer (not to mention cheaper) than working together on an arms race with no end in sight.

Theme 8.  Safety slows us down. One speaker put up a slide that read, “My job is to keep nuclear safety off the critical path of your mission.” The quote was attributed to John Conway, who, as chair of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, was in charge of safety regulations for nuclear weapons facilities across the United States from 1989 to 2005. Conway was quoted as a role model, not as a cautionary tale.

Contractor Garrett Harencak said, “What we do could be dangerous, could be a problem, but so are other industries. We overdo security. When there are 5600 pages of documents, that drives behavior. It doesn’t allow us to move at speed. We have to shift risk perception…but my people were all good students, good on the SAT’s…Why can’t we trust the smartest people on the planet?”

As I write, six smart people just got fired from Minot Air Force Base. Air Force Times reports that it was over a “failed nuclear safety inspection.”

While the NNSA is responsible for making nuclear weapons safer (from accidents), more secure (from thieves and saboteurs), and more effective (at being reliably capable of destroying targets), the emphasis of the entire event was clearly on the latter. The more destructive the weapons, theoretically, the better they would be at deterrence.

One speaker even mentioned that “safety and security are not the Mission.” In an industry with the potential to end life on Earth, a “culture of risk aversion” was blamed for “slowing us down and raising costs.” Senator Fischer put it bluntly: “We must reform the bureaucratic processes that hamstring us.”

Back to part 1

Go to part 3