ALBUQUERQUE — Standing next to a 12-foot nuclear bomb that looks more like a trim missile than a weapon of mass destruction, engineer Phil Hoover exudes pride. “I feel a real sense of accomplishment,” he said.
But as Hoover knows, looks can be deceiving. He and fellow engineers at Sandia National Laboratories have spent the past few years designing, building and testing the top-secret electronic and mechanical innards of the sophisticated B61-12.
Later, when nuclear explosives are added at the federal Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, the bomb will have a maximum explosive force equivalent to 50,000 tons of TNT — more than three times more powerful than the U.S. atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, 70 years ago this August that killed more than 130,000 people.
The U.S. government doesn’t consider the B61-12 to be new — simply an upgrade of an existing weapon. But some contend it is far more than that.
Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the nonpartisan Federation of American Scientists in Washington, is resolute that the bomb violates a 2010 Obama administration pledge not to produce nuclear weapons with new military capabilities.
“We do not have a nuclear guided bomb in our arsenal today,” Kristensen said. “It is a new weapon.”
Kristensen’s organization was formed in 1945 by nuclear scientists who wanted to prevent nuclear war. And it’s not the maximum force of the B61-12 that worries him the most on that front.
Instead, he says he fears that the bomb’s greater accuracy, coupled with the way its explosive force can be reduced electronically through a dial-a-yield system accessed by a hatch on the bomb’s body, increases the risk that a president might consider it tame enough for a future conflict.
Congress shared similar concerns in rejecting other so-called low-intensity nuclear weapons in the past. But most of the national criticism of this bomb has focused on its price tag. After it goes into full production in 2020, taxpayers will have spent about $11 billion to build 400 B61-12 bombs. That sum is more than double the original estimate, making it the most expensive nuclear bomb ever.
To Kristensen and others, if President Barack Obama’s pledge was serious, the bomb shouldn’t exist at any price.
How the B61-12 entered the U.S. arsenal of weapons is a tale of the extraordinary influence of the “nuclear enterprise,” as the nuclear weapons complex has rebranded itself in recent years. Its story lies at the heart of the national debate over the ongoing modernization of America’s nuclear weapons, a program projected to cost $348 billion over the next decade.
This enterprise encompasses defense contractors, including the subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp. that runs the Sandia labs for the government, as well as the U.S. Department of Energy and the nuclear weapons-oriented wings of the U.S. military — particularly the Air Force and Navy. With abundant jobs and dollars at stake, the nuclear enterprise is backed by politicians of all stripes.
A review of several thousands of pages of congressional testimony, federal budgets and audit reports, plus an analysis of lobbying and campaign contribution data, shows that the four defense contractors running the two New Mexico nuclear weapons labs, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratory, enjoy a particularly symbiotic relationship with Congress.
That relationship begins with money.
Since 1998, these four contractors have contributed more than $20 million to congressional campaigns around the nation. Last year alone, they spent almost $18 million lobbying Washington to ensure that funding for nuclear weapons projects continues even as nuclear stockpiles shrink.
Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said the outlay is a bargain considering what’s at stake for the contractors.
“It’s an insignificant cost of doing business relative to the potential income from these contracts,” she said.
In arid, impoverished New Mexico, the nuclear weapons enterprise thrives on particularly close connections between business interests and politicians, doors revolving in both directions and successful efforts to minimize oversight of corporate behavior.
Republican Heather Wilson left Congress in January 2009 after a decade as a New Mexico congresswoman. She had lost her bid to jump up to the Senate seat vacated by her mentor, Pete Domenici.
After losing, she set up a consulting business and, within days of leaving office, Wilson — an Air Force veteran — was consulting mainly for the two New Mexico weapons labs.
Over the next two years, Wilson was paid more than $400,000 by Lockheed’s Sandia Corp. and the consortium of contractors running the Los Alamos lab — to help them extend and expand federal contracts and get more business, according to the first of two scathing inspector general reports. Eventually, the contractors were forced to reimburse the government for the federal funds they used to pay Wilson for her advocacy work.
Asked about the significance of that outcome, the Lockheed communications office responded to Reveal via email: “With regards to the inspector general’s report, Sandia has cooperated with the Inspector General’s review and will continue to do so.” Wilson declined to comment.
Wilson’s support for the labs persisted after she left the consulting business in early 2012 and ran for the Senate again. When the Obama administration cut funding for a Los Alamos lab project, Wilson told the Albuquerque Journal: “Not only is this bad for our country and its national security, it’s bad for New Mexico and our economy.”
For New Mexico, the second-poorest state after Mississippi, nuclear weapons and military bases are undeniably a lifeblood. Out of the $27.5 billion in federal dollars poured into the state in 2013, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study, about $5 billion went to Los Alamos, Sandia and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nuclear weapons waste facility east of Carlsbad, where accidents last year exposed dozens of workers to radiation.
Billions more were spent on the state’s four main military bases. The city of Alamogordo, next to Holloman Air Force Base and the Army’s White Sands Missile Range — home of Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested in July 1945 — benefits from $450 million a year in military spending, according to the local chamber of commerce.
The labs and bases, and the defense contractors that run them or contract with them, also are an integral part of New Mexico’s economic fabric. Los Alamos, Sandia and White Sands are three of the state’s top 10 employers, together providing about 24,000 jobs.
New Mexico politicians have a long history of helping the labs, said local political analyst Joe Monahan. It dates back to World War II and the development of the first nuclear bomb under Los Alamos Director J. Robert Oppenheimer.
“The economic impact is the driver of the politics,” Monahan said.
The engineers behind the weapons
At Sandia labs today, engineers such as Hoover and his boss Jim Handrock, director of weapons system engineering, populate the well-paid professional ranks. They turn ideas into weapons.
Nuclear specifications come to them from the two national security physics labs — Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. They marry those specifications to Pentagon military requirements and design bombs and missile warheads to carry nuclear explosives.
The secrecy of the work is so high that no outside cellphones may be brought into the building, even by Sandia’s public affairs escort. Hoover and Handrock take off their badges before being photographed. National security is their mantra, a value that gained urgency following recent criticism by the National Nuclear Security Administration that Sandia experienced 190 “security incidents” in fiscal year 2014 and the agency’s proposed $577,500 fine for Sandia’s earlier mishandling of classified information.
“We need to make sure that should the president of the United States choose to use the weapons, they will always work, but they will never work in any other situation,” Handrock said.
When Sandia hired Handrock, it was run by a Western Electric Co. subsidiary. He got a new employer in 1993, when Martin Marietta Corp. acquired Sandia Corp. Two years later, Lockheed Corp. and Martin Marietta merged to form the nation’s largest defense contractor.
Similarly influential and powerful companies run New Mexico’s other nuclear facilities. Bechtel Corp., URS Corp. and The Babcock & Wilcox Co. partner with the University of California, Berkeley to operate Los Alamos. URS and Babcock & Wilcox, along with Areva Inc. North America, an offshoot of a large French nuclear company, also manage the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
Those four contractors and Areva are heavy hitters in Washington, with a combined 164 lobbyists at their disposal — 70 percent of them former members of Congress, congressional aides or federal officials, according to Reveal’s analysis of Center for Responsive Politics data.
“An army of lobbyists is great,” the center’s Krumholz said. “But an army of insiders who know how to navigate the halls of power can socialize with politicians on weekends and ultimately play the system like a violin is so much better.”
Lockheed said it simply needs to get its perspectives across to federal officials.
“We routinely communicate our point of view with members of Congress and customers who oversee our programs as well as leaders of congressional districts where Lockheed Martin has a significant business presence,” the company said in its emailed response.
Come campaign season, the contractors remember the New Mexico delegation. In the past two decades, the contractors’ political action committees have donated $430,000 to the state’s senators and members of Congress. Hundreds of company officials chipped in another $350,000. Wilson received more than $250,000 of that between 1998 and 2012, the year she ran for the Senate again — and lost again.
New Mexico senators advocate for labs
New Mexico’s current senators are Democrats Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich. Contributions to their campaigns from defense contractors and company officials fall far short of Wilson’s — less than $100,000 each since 1998. Nonetheless, the two play important roles, sitting on subcommittees that determine funding and policy for the nuclear labs.
Both voted for a December budget bill that funds the labs even though it also waters down campaign finance controls and Wall Street reforms they had embraced.
Jennifer Talhelm, Udall’s spokeswoman, described the budget vote as difficult, given the conflicting priorities.
“There’s no question that the labs are a major portion of the economy, especially in Albuquerque and Northern New Mexico,” she said. “They employ thousands of people.”
She said Udall also has been a strong supporter of the B-61 bomb program both because of the jobs it brings to New Mexico and its role in national security, though she emphasized that he does not get involved in contract funding decisions.
“You could say he is a big part of why the B-61 program still exists,” Talhelm said.
Heinrich, while a congressman from 2009 to 2013, routinely pressed the Obama administration and Republican leaders to spare the labs from budget cuts and government shutdowns. After he joined the Senate in 2013, he advocated for the extension of a Sandia Corp. federal contract during confirmation hearings for a new energy secretary, Ernest Moniz.
“It is now almost a certainty that the current contract will need to be extended further,” Heinrich wrote in a question submitted to the nominee. “This protracted uncertainty is beginning to impact Sandia’s leadership and ability to fill key management positions.”
In an email to Reveal, Heinrich’s office said the senator is committed to making sure the labs get full funding.
“The labs also strengthen New Mexico’s economy by providing high-paying, high-skilled technology jobs in our state and Senator Heinrich will always fight to protect their missions,” the statement said.
Another New Mexico lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján, formed a congressional caucus with three other representatives in 2012 specifically to look out for the interests of the national labs. He has received $32,000 in donations since 2008 from the contractors’ PACs and company officials. Luján’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The contractors and labs gain influence and access in other ways as well.
Pete Lyons, a top science adviser to Domenici when he was senator in the mid-1990s, came from the Los Alamos lab, where he was an associate director of various programs. Lyons initially was kept on the Los Alamos payroll and assigned to Domenici as a congressional fellow, according to the news release published when he was named a top Energy Department official.
The Los Alamos lab provided the last two science advisers to New Mexico’s governor, too. Gov. Susana Martinez’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
U.S., Russia agree to reduce stockpile
The nuclear weapons enterprise has had plenty at stake in recent years.
In Prague in 2009, Obama called for the elimination of nuclear weapons. A year later, he and Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty calling for each country to reduce its deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 by 2018, down from estimates of more than 1,900 for the United States and more than 2,400 for Russia.
Ratification of the treaty required a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate, which followed in December 2010. Defense hawks and their allies exacted a price for the treaty vote: $85 billion in nuclear weapons modernization over a decade. The Congressional Budget Office says the figure has since more than quadrupled.
Sandia and Los Alamos benefited greatly from the Capitol Hill bargaining. Ten of the 19 modernization capital projects approved by the national nuclear agency and 15 of the 36 proposed capital projects for the nuclear security system are based at the two labs, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The B61-12 bomb’s Life Extension Program at Sandia is among those projects. This year, the $643 million for that program accounts for more than a third of Sandia’s $1.8 billion Energy Department budget.
“It’s the largest nuclear weapons program we have going on at Sandia currently,” said Handrock, the lab’s weapons systems director.
But the program hasn’t experienced perfectly smooth sailing in Congress.
A 2012 Pentagon study concluded that the B61-12 bombs would cost $10.4 billion for development and production, excluding at least $1 billion for the new tail kit, more than double the national nuclear agency’s original estimate. That overrun influenced the Senate Appropriations Committee’s vote the following year to chop by one-third the Obama administration’s $537 million budget request for fiscal year 2014, over strong objections from committee member Udall.
House-Senate negotiations on the omnibus budget bill at the end of 2013 restored the full amount for the B61-12.
The new bomb’s name, B61-12, reflects its position as the 12th model of what the government calls a family of bombs. It is descended from the first U.S. hydrogen bomb tested in the Marshall Islands in 1952, which used a plutonium bomb to detonate a thermonuclear explosion 520 times more powerful than the plutonium bomb tested seven years earlier — the nation’s first — at the remote Trinity Site in Southern New Mexico.
Today’s stockpile contains five B61 models, including three tactical versions intended for short-range warfighting. The new B61-12 will consolidate those three models and one more highly explosive strategic bomb, using the nuclear package from one of the existing models.
Unlike the free-fall gravity bombs it will replace, the B61-12 will be a guided nuclear bomb. Its new Boeing Co. tail kit assembly enables the bomb to hit targets precisely. Using dial-a-yield technology, the bomb’s explosive force can be adjusted before flight from an estimated high of 50,000 tons of TNT equivalent force to a low of 300 tons.
And that’s where the debate over the B61-12 moves beyond cost overruns, zeroing in on the granular details of its capabilities.
Congress rejected funding for similar nuclear weapons at least twice during the past 25 years, saying enhanced precision coupled with less force would lead to less collateral damage — such as radiation fallout that could harm allies — and thus a greater likelihood that the military would recommend that the president use the weapons.
Obama pledged that the United States would produce no new nuclear warheads and that life extension programs of existing weapons would not provide “new military capabilities.”
Officials from the Obama administration, Pentagon and Energy Department continue to argue that the B61-12 stays within the bounds of that pledge by modernizing an aging family of bombs and in the process ensuring a reliable nuclear arsenal to scare off adversaries.
Back at Sandia, engineer Hoover is the one in charge of integrating the tail kit instruments with those inside the weapon’s body.
“The tail kit provides the ability to get more accuracy,” he said. “We’re reducing the potential for collateral damage.” This kind of guided system, he continued, is “consistent with our digital aircraft today.”
High on the list of aircraft that could carry the bomb is Lockheed’s new F-35 fighter jet. This stealth plane, designed to evade radar, is a $400 billion weapon delivery system that has been plagued by technical problems and cost overruns.
The idea of stealth fighters carrying B61-12 nuclear bombs worries some outside experts, including Kristensen, of the Federation of American Scientists.
“If the Russians put out a guided nuclear bomb on a stealthy fighter that could sneak through air defenses, would that add to the perception here that they were lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons?” he asked. “Absolutely.”
Hoover referred Reveal to the U.S. Strategic Command, or STRATCOM, a command of the Defense Department that is in charge of nuclear weapons. After requesting written questions, STRATCOM referred Reveal to the Air Force.
Maj. Kelley Jeter, an Air Force spokeswoman, declined to be interviewed, but agreed to answer questions via email. Asked what effect stealth fighter jets carrying low-yield B61-12 nuclear bombs would have on an adversary during a conflict, she responded: “To effectively deter potential adversaries, the weapons and platforms fielded by the Air Force must credibly provide options for the President to demonstrate U.S. resolve and support deterrence options for the President to deal with emerging crises.”
But, she added, “the B61-12 will not provide new military capabilities.”
This story was produced and originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization and public radio show based in California. Learn more at revealnews.org. This version was digested for length by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Len Ackland can be reached at email@example.com, and Burt Hubbard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.