A top U.S. nuclear security official and the leaders of three key national laboratories doubled down Friday on the push to modernize the country’s nuclear arsenal and the science and technology that back it up.
During a virtual forum, the officials acknowledged global pressures that include more investment by Russia and China in nuclear weapons and advanced laser capabilities. They said the United States is at a “tipping point” when it comes to maintaining its own arsenal and that boosting production capabilities cannot be put off.
The United States has an opportunity to re-imagine its entire nuclear enterprise — from how weapons are designed, engineered and produced to how related business systems are managed, said Kim Budil, the director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. She said new technology and tools are being developed that will be key for speeding that process along and keeping costs down.
She pointed to three-dimensional simulations that can be done in a day now, rather than months.
Budil and the directors of Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, which are both in New Mexico, also talked about the global race to attract the next generation of scientists.
“It’s true in computing, it’s true in materials, AI, machine learning — you name a critical technology and the competition in the (science and technology) arena is extraordinary on the international stage today,” Bidul said. “So it is something we think about, and it’s important that the U.S. establish not just our production infrastructure, which is critically important, but that we sustain that intellectual leadership that really is a vital part of our deterrent.”
There has been a flurry of hiring at the labs, partly to meet the demands of deadlines imposed by the federal government to deliver a certain number of the plutonium cores that are used to trigger nuclear weapons in the coming years. That work will be split between the Los Alamos lab and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
Critics have argued that new plutonium cores are not needed. Concerns about inflated budgets and security problems have been raised by nuclear watchdog groups and others during recent congressional hearings.
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm testified Thursday before a U.S. Senate committee that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the U.S. must maintain the effectiveness of its arsenal.
While President Joe Biden has proposed a budget increase for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the administration is conducting a formal review of the modernization efforts that started under the Obama administration and were continued by President Donald Trump. The review is expected to take months.