The Cable

America’s Nuclear Weapons Infrastructure Is Crumbling

Leaky roofs, faulty ventilation, and encounters with snakes and rodents are par for the course at U.S. nuclear weapon facilities.

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President Donald Trump wants the United States to be at the “top of the pack” with nuclear weapons. But his goal already hit a snag: The infrastructure that supports the country’s nuclear weapons is crumbling to “alarming” levels, a Congressional panel warned Thursday.

Much of the infrastructure that supports the U.S. nuclear weapons programs, including labs, production facilities, and weapons storage complexes themselves were built six decades ago.

The aging buildings require constant upgrades and renovations to ensure the safety of the government employees handling the weapons — and secure the weapons themselves. But it’s not happening.

There’s a $3.7 billion backlog in deferred essential repairs to the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure, overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous arm of the Department of Energy. The maintenance problems are “quite alarming” and “pose the risk of a dangerous nuclear accident,” said Congressman Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), during a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on infrastructure needs of the nuclear security enterprise.

The warnings come as the U.S. government begins to pour over $1 trillion into modernizing its nuclear weapons stockpile over the next 30 years. It’s a top priority for Energy Secretary Rick Perry — who once ran a presidential campaign that called for abolishing the Department of Energy entirely — but the sorry state of NNSA facilities may bog down modernization efforts from the start.

Much of the NNSA’s facilities “dat[e] to the Eisenhower Administration and, in some cases, the Manhattan Project era,” said Frank Klotz, administrator of the NNSA and under secretary of the Energy Department. “I can think of no greater threat to the nuclear security enterprise than the state of NNSA’s infrastructure,” he said.

As they maintain or research nuclear weapons, NNSA employees are subject to leaky roofs, faulty ventilation, and even “routine encounters” with snakes and rodents, according to Michelle Reichart, a top managing contractor for nuclear weapons sites.

The NNSA has sounded the alarm bell on its aging infrastructure before, and in years prior Congress set aside funds to curb the ballooning deferred-maintenance issues. But it wasn’t until last year that the NNSA halted the growth of the problem.

Congressional members on the panel appeared willing to earmark further funds, but the NNSA ran into a roadblock of its own making. Congressman Mike Rogers (R-Ky.) asked Perry and the NNSA in January for a list of specific infrastructure projects that in the “intermediate-range” could use stopgap funding. As of Thursday’s panel, the NNSA still hadn’t provided the list to Congress. “That is disappointing,” Rogers told Klotz at the hearing. 

When the president’s budget request is transmitted to Congress in a few weeks’ time, we will then be able to provide additional details,” an NNSA spokesperson told Foreign Policy when pressed on why the agency hadn’t furnished any list. 

Beyond the crumbling infrastructure, security experts worry the weapons themselves could be at risk. History’s proved them right in the past.

In 2012, three anti-nuclear activists including an octogenarian nun broke into one of the country’s most secure nuclear weapons facilities, the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In an embarrassing lapse in security, they spent two hours in the facility painting protest signs on buildings that processed weapons-grade uranium inside. The incident sparked immediate rebuke from Congress and the Department of Energy pledged to take action.

Meanwhile, that trillion dollar nuclear weapons modernization program will require thousands of warheads to be shipped across the country. But the office in charge of shipping those weapons is mired in problems, as a new Los Angeles Times investigation revealed. The energy department’s Office of Secure Transportation grappled with “widespread alcohol problems” from its workers, who are responsible for driving nuclear bombs in aging semi-trucks across the country.

Update: This article was updated to include comments from an NNSA spokesperson. 

Photo credit: Jeff T. Green/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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