DOE/NNSA Mission…..Tbw asked for my opinion on the mission of the DOE/NNSA complex. In that regard, optical weenie suggested I look at the NNSA website.

For those joining in the middle of this conversation, the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) is the part of the Department of Energy that deals with nuclear weapons.

I don’t see an explicit statement of mission at the NNSA website, although I would be surprised if a government agency didn’t have such a group of words somewhere.

One can be obvious and say that the mission of NNSA is to maintain and certify the nuclear stockpile. But that doesn’t tell us much of what I suspect tbw is asking about.

The mission of the nuclear weapons complex during the Cold War was to keep ahead of the Soviets. That meant more and better. When Gorbachev became First Secretary of the Communist Party, and it turned out that Ronald Reagan was a closet nuclear abolitionist, that got toned down. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the potential uses of nuclear weapons were no longer obvious.

The military never was all that crazy about nukes, either. The Air Force liked that they justified fancy missiles and bombers, but the other services tended to see them more as a liability to themselves. Too much standoff distance for the Army if you wanted to lob one at the other guy.

So who are we going to use nuclear weapons against now? Where is the threat that would justify the use of a nuclear weapon?

Both the United States and Russia have been decommissioning their nuclear weapons. They have agreed to get down to 2200 each by 2012. The numbers now are something under 10,000 for the US, a few thousand more for Russia. Congress has refused to fund the RRW until they get a clear statement of what it will be used for.

The DOE/NNSA mission is inextricably tied to national policy on nuclear weapons. There are three ways it could go, it seems to me.

1. Nuclear weapons become much more important in the US’s defense strategy. In this case, DOE/NNSA gets a new lease on life. Complex 2030 (or whatever they are calling it this week) gets fully funded. The RRW becomes real. The labs hire a bunch of eager young designers and the economy of New Mexico blooms. I put the probability of this scenario at less than 10%.

2. The next president signs on to the program proposed by George Schultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn. Agreement with Russia opens up Pantex and the Russian equivalents to the IAEA and regular reports are issued on how many weapons have been disassembled and how many are left. Britain, France and China join the rush. Israel admits it has nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan decide to think about it. Probability: somewhere between 20 and 50%, higher if Obama becomes president.

3. Business as usual. Nukes are disassembled at the current rate. National policy remains muddled. We hoot and holler at various other nations who hoot and holler back. Probability: around 50%, more if Clinton or McCain becomes president.

[Whoops! Got to change those probabilities with McCain’s speech today. So let’s add McCain to scenario 2 and subtract him from scenario 3, while decreasing the probability of scenario 3.]