Rick Perry, the Republican former governor of Texas, will be nominated to the be the next United States Secretary of Energy. If confirmed—which is likely—Perry will have a pivotal role in the defense world because he will be responsible for the next generation of American nuclear weapons.
Perry, who once infamously forgot that he actually wanted to completely dismantle the Department of Energy, will succeed Ernest Moniz, a physicist who at one point co-chaired the MIT Energy Research Council.
It might seem a little strange for a prominent physicist to be the current head of the U.S. Department of Energy, until you consider that the D.O.E. is responsible for the design, testing, and production of the American nuclear stockpile, under the guise of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which describes its goings-on thusly:
NNSA’s nuclear weapons activities are carried out in a nationwide network of government-owned, contractor-operated national security laboratories, test site, and nuclear weapons production sites. These sites, collectively known as NNSA’s nuclear security enterprise, provide the necessary research, development and production capabilities needed to maintain the reliability, security and safety of the weapons stockpile.
The nuclear security component of the D.O.E.’s mandate isn’t small potatoes, either, clocking in at nearly 40 percent of the requested 2017 budget.
And while the D.O.E. is also responsible for managing the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, for which Perry might find being the former governor of a major oil-producing state helpful, the nuclear weapons component of the job description is about to become way, way more important.
For the most part, the American nuclear stockpile has remained unchanged since the Reagan Administration. If anything, it’s only gotten smaller as the United States has signed nuclear arms reduction treaties with Russia, like the New START treaty of 2010, which limited the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550.
(Don’t worry, strategic warheads are the big ones, and 1,550 of them lobbed from each side is still plenty to ruin everyone’s day.)
But in return for Republican congressional support of the New START treaty, President Obama pledged $350 billion over the next ten years for nuclear weapons modernization. The Defense and Energy Departments will be in charge of that. This nuclear weapons modernization program includes both a warhead refurbishment program and a modernized production complex, as the Arms Control Association notes:
- Refurbished Nuclear Warheads: The U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads and bombs is continually refurbished through NNSA’s Life Extension Program (LEP). Existing warheads are certified annually to be safe and reliable. The JASON panel of independent scientists has found “no evidence” that extending the lives of existing U.S. nuclear warheads would lead to reduced confidence that the weapons will work. The panel concluded in its September 2009 report that “Lifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence.” The United States does not need to resume nuclear test explosions, nor does it need to build new “replacement” warhead designs to maintain the reliability and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. The NNSA is currently pursuing a controversial and expensive plan to consolidate the existing number of nuclear warhead types from 10 down to 5. Known as the “3+2" strategy, the five LEPs associated with this approach are estimated to cost over $60 billion in then-year dollars.
- Modernized Production Complex: The nuclear weapons production complex is being modernized as well, with new facilities planned and funded. For example, the FY 2017 NNSA budget includes $575 million for the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The total construction cost for UPF is estimated at $6.5 – 7.5 billion, according to an independent study conducted by the Corps of Engineers, although some estimates put the price tag at $11 billion.
As the ACA notes, all of that should go fine, if you’re the sort that thinks nuclear weapons are fine in general.
Still, I hereby call upon the Obama administration to release, in its last few remaining days, any and all video that may or may not exist of Dr. Ernest Moniz, a physicist, explaining nuclear weapons design to Rick Perry, a guy with glasses. Moniz, accompanied by his glorious mane, has been known to be able to riff on the subject for nearly an hour:
In case you forget how to build an enormous nuke, too, watch this video.