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CCADD International Conference, 19-23 September 2008

Cathedral College at the Washington National Cathedral




 “Nuclear Weapons in the Coming Decade”

Presented by Thomas D’Agostino, Administrator

National Nuclear Security Administration




Thanks for the opportunity to speak today about the U.S. Nuclear Security Programs. It is an honor to talk to a unique group who is respected for its open-minded approach to analyzing defense and disarmament issues through a Christian lens.  An open dialogue on these issues can help us better understand the moral and security challenges we face as defenders of free societies, and the best direction to move towards in the future to ensure greater safety and security for humanity.


As Administrator of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, I am charged with leading NNSA’s dual missions to maintain the safety, reliability, and security of the United States nuclear weapons stockpile and more broadly to reduce global nuclear dangers.  At the core of these two missions lies one shared objective; upholding the national security of the United States and its allies, by responsible nuclear stewardship, both at home and abroad.


Indeed, the nuclear posture of the United States is evolving from its Cold War context to become a key element of a comprehensive strategy for reducing nuclear threats worldwide.  More specifically, our nuclear posture is linked to, and achieved in a manner that supports, ongoing non-proliferation and threat reduction activities, arms control, and nuclear counterterrorism.


Today, a catastrophic nuclear exchange involving thousands of warheads is much less likely then it was during the Cold War.  That said, today’s security environment is more complex and also more unpredictable.  Regional tensions have not gone away and nuclear weapons are a factor in the security calculations of several countries, some with increasing emphasis.  We cannot rule out a world in which catastrophic nuclear threats regain a certain prominence.


Therefore, to hedge against such risks, the United States will continue to deploy a strategic deterrent for the foreseeable future and take the necessary steps to sustain and, as appropriate, modernize relevant systems and capabilities to ensure safe, secure, reliable and effective forces.


Moreover, we are moving to transform away from an outdated cold-war nuclear weapons infrastructure into a 21st Century national security enterprise that is more responsive to changing defense needs.  That enterprise will support other national security agencies that rely on our technical and intellectual capability in the areas of non-proliferation, nuclear forensics, nuclear counterterrorism, and support to the intelligence community.


While we are looking at ways to adapt to new and evolving threats, it is clear that we will continue to rely on a strategic deterrent as part of our overall national security strategy.


Nuclear Deterrent for the 21st Century


The ultimate decision on our deterrence strategy is not mine -- or my successors -- to make.  My job is to sustain the safety, security and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile and to ensure that this can be certified to the President on an annual basis, without nuclear testing.  My goal, as well as the Administration’s, is to seek to achieve this with the smallest, safest and most secure nuclear stockpile consistent with our nation’s security and commitments to our allies.


In this regard, President Bush has done a good job and has reduced by almost half the total stockpile inventory we inherited in 2001.  This achievement was followed by his announcement in December 2007 that a further fifteen percent reduction to the stockpile would be completed by 2012.


Even while these reduction efforts are continuing, there are some fundamental challenges that test our ability to maintain the existing stockpile today – let alone into the future.


We have not fielded a new warhead design in over 20 years and many of our key systems are over 30 years old.  While these weapons remain safe and secure today, they will present some real difficulties in keeping them certified for stockpile use in the future.  These weapons were certified using underground nuclear tests, which we no longer perform.  I think we can all agree that this is a good thing.  We have been fortunate to some degree to offset the absence of nuclear testing by working with Congress to build a cadre of new scientific tools, advanced computing, and experimental capabilities that make up the Stockpile Stewardship Program.


However, while we have increased our overall scientific capability, we cannot escape the fundamental fact that we are working on Cold War weapons with dynamic properties that are aging.   We continue to see increased risk in our current approach, absent nuclear testing, in assuring the long-term reliability of today’s legacy stockpile.  In addition, these old weapons do not have near the safety and security features that we would want given today’s post 9/11 security environment. 


To manage this risk, even while we shrink the overall size of the stockpile, we would like to study whether a replacement warhead for the legacy stockpile makes sense.  This replacement would be less sensitive to component aging or to manufacturing variances.  They would have enhanced safety and security features appropriate for today’s security environment that cannot be introduced in older weapons.  Through my own faith-based perspective, this is a rational thing to do, given that we will be maintaining a strategic stockpile for some time. 


This effort would also facilitate our ongoing transformation to a smaller, safer, and more efficient, less costly nuclear enterprise.  It would allow us to reduce the work hazards for our employees by eliminating old, unsafe buildings as well as numerous exotic and toxic materials that must be handled and managed.  Of course, we would only move forward on such a concept if it could be done without underground nuclear tests.  Moreover, such activities would fully comply with our obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).


It therefore seems prudent to explore alternate means to manage risk in order to ensure long-term safety, security and reliability.  This is the impetus for our work on what is known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW):  to examine how we might better ensure the sustainment of the military capabilities provided by the existing stockpile, not to develop new warheads for new or different military missions.


Some may argue that this clashes with our current nuclear posture on non-proliferation as it would encourage other actors to move towards building nuclear weapons.  However, our efforts to study these concepts are not in any way inconsistent with non-proliferation.  In fact, they may be critical to non-proliferation in the long run. 


I would remind you that the United States has not designed of fielded a new nuclear weapon in nearly three decades, nor-tested a nuclear weapon in 16 years; facts that have done little to stop various nations that seek nuclear weapons from pursuing them.  Conversely, the threat of regional bad actors with nuclear weapons, and our maintaining and extending our deterrent to allies in those regions, has reduced incentives for those countries from developing their own nuclear deterrent.


Beyond the policy and theological discussion on the need for nuclear deterrence, or the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, that fact remains that numerous nations have them and a number are seeking them.  We are doing our part to reduce their importance and our reliance on them, however, they will remain a significant part of our national security strategy and likely will so for the foreseeable future given the nature of the world today.  If we are going to maintain such a policy of deterrence, the instruments used to maintain that policy must be credible and managed in a responsible manner that emphasizes safety and security.


That doesn’t mean more.  In fact, it likely means a lot less, but getting there will not be possible without fundamentally changing how we do business.  Two critical components of that are our complex transformation efforts and the need to study ultra-safe and ultra-secure replacement warhead concepts.


Working to Prevent Proliferation


The core capabilities and expertise developed over six decades in support of nuclear weapons programs have enabled critical global nuclear threat reduction efforts and, indeed, contributed to a much broader array of national security goals beyond nuclear weapons.  Let me summarize.


NNSA is working to counter global nuclear threats broadly.  Indeed, global threats require a global response.  NNSA is engaging over 100 countries to advance nonproliferation objectives by detecting, securing, and eliminating dangerous nuclear and radiological materials. 


In fact, we have recently re-inventoried and prioritized the known nuclear and radiological material and sites around the world.  A presidential report that will be issued to Congress soon that outlines steps NNSA is taking to collaborate internationally to secure and account for, reduce and eliminate, and detect trafficking in nuclear weapons, materials and related equipment.


To most effectively implement this mission and maximize resources, we focus our efforts on the following principles:  1) securing fissile material at its source as a “first line of defense” to most directly prevent access; 2) detecting and deterring illicit trafficking as a “second line defense;” and 3) increasingly focus on the security of civilian nuclear and radiological materials.  We recognize the urgency of this mission and just as we have in our disarmament work, have accelerated these nonproliferation efforts in response.


Under the Bratislava Nuclear Security Initiative, we accelerated our nuclear security cooperation with Russia and have completed security upgrades at 85% of Russian nuclear sites of concern.  We are on target to complete the balance of sites by the end of this year.  This year, we reached an historic nonproliferation milestone by ceasing operations of two reactors located in the city of Seversk, Russia, ending 43 years of weapons-grade plutonium production there.  We anticipate shutting down the one remaining plutonium producing reactor in Russia no later than 2010.  And we have verifiably downblended more than 337 metric tons of Russian former-weapons HEU - - material which provides 10% of all U.S. electricity - - and have reached agreement with Russia on a technical and financial plan to eliminate 34 metric tons of their weapon-grade plutonium.


We recognize, however, that not all material of concern is in Russia or residing at defense facilities.  In response, we have expanded the scope of our international work to new countries and, increasingly, civilian materials.  To support the minimization of the civilian use of HEU globally, we are converting research reactors domestically and abroad to low enriched uranium and repatriating the HEU back to Russia and the United States.  To date, we have converted 52 reactors - -12 of which in just the past 3 years alone - - and removed over 1,900 kilograms of HEU.  We are developing innovative new safeguards technologies and approaches through our Next Generation Safeguards Initiative to ensure that the anticipated growth of nuclear energy worldwide does not contribute to proliferation or outpace international safeguards capabilities. 


We are also taking aggressive steps to interdict illicit transfers of weapons-usable nuclear materials and equipment, and to prevent dissemination of related sensitive nuclear technology via strengthened export controls and cooperation.  NNSA is on the front line of efforts to help countries meet their safeguards, security, and export control obligations under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540.  In just the last year, NNSA trained approximately 300 nuclear facility operators in foreign countries on material accounting and control procedures and trained approximately 1,000 licensing, industry, and customs officers to assess export license applications and identify strategic commodities.  We have been active participants in the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which provides the practical means to achieve the legal mandates of UNSCR 1540.


As an important complement to physical security improvements, our Second Line of Defense Program enhances our foreign partners’ ability to interdict illicit trafficking in nuclear materials through the deployment of radiation detection systems at high-risk land-border crossings, airport and seaports.  To date, NNSA has installed radiation detection equipment at high-volume, strategic “Megaports” in 12 countries, with work underway in a total of 25 countries. 


And we work to reduce the likelihood of terrorist acquisition of material for a radiological dispersal device by detecting, securing, and eliminating vulnerable materials.  Our Global Threat Reduction Initiative has secured over 655 radiological sites overseas to date, thus protecting over 9 million curies of radioactive materials from theft.




So, I hope that you take away two things from my talk this morning.  First, while we remain a nuclear power, the United States is not shirking its moral responsibility to move towards a safer world.  And second, the concepts of nuclear deterrence and nonproliferation are not mutually exclusive.  They can, and in fact they do, work together to support our broader national security and global nonproliferation objectives.  As long as we maintain a deterrent, the United States must continue to have a nuclear security enterprise that supports that deterrent.  But it should be one that is consistent with the times, supports the science and knowledge needed for the growing areas of nonproliferation, counterterrorism and nuclear forensics, intelligence analysis and emergency response, and is mindful of the health and safety needs of our employees and the environment.  As we maintain our deterrent, we will continue to look for opportunities to reduce our stockpile and dismantle unneeded nuclear weapons

Thank you.