OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — One of the most important national security decisions facing President-elect Barack Obama will unfold in this remote valley of aging factories, where workers enriched uranium for the first atomic bomb of World War II.
The site is a linchpin in a hotly contested Bush administration plan to build the first new U.S. warheads since the end of the Cold War. Following Congress' demand that decisions on new warheads be deferred until an assessment of U.S. nuclear weapons needs is finished next year, the issue is set to come to a head early in Obama's presidency.
The outcome will determine whether Oak Ridge focuses on maintaining existing warheads and storing uranium from weapons pulled out of a shrinking arsenal — or whether it becomes a cornerstone in a new production enterprise. The implications go far beyond Oak Ridge and the seven other research and manufacturing compounds nationwide that make up the U.S. nuclear weapons production complex.
"This is not just a decision about the future of U.S. nuclear weapons, but about how the United States will address the challenges of … nuclear terrorism, nuclear proliferation and our entire 21st-century nuclear strategy," says Clark Murdock, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"These challenges have been maturing for some time, and the Obama administration is going to have to deal with them," adds Murdock, a former staffer for the Pentagon and Congress.
During the campaign, Obama said that he seeks "a world without nuclear weapons," but he also said that the nation must "always maintain a strong (nuclear) deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist."
Among other things, Obama has promised to strengthen non-proliferation programs, reach disarmament deals with Russia and bolster sanctions against North Korea, Iran and other states with rogue nuclear programs. He has vowed to seek a verifiable global ban on production of nuclear weapons material — and to "stop the development of new nuclear weapons."
Obama's statements offer no definitive stance on the Bush plan to build a new breed of warheads. His transition office declined to elaborate further.
Those on both sides of the issue say his comments leave room for him to support their positions.
The Bush plan focuses on producing a "Reliable Replacement Warhead," or RRW, which the administration touts as a better, more durable substitute for warheads in the U.S. stockpile. The new warhead would have features to ensure it could not be detonated if stolen by terrorists or other foes.
The warhead "is about the future credibility of our nuclear deterrent," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in an October speech.
Great Britain, France, Russia and China are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, Gates said, and the United States must follow suit. As a signer of the nuclear test ban treaty, the United States cannot detonate its nuclear weapons to see whether age has weakened them. That means, he said, that sharp cuts in U.S. warheads required by disarmament treaties raise questions about the power of remaining weapons.
"There is no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing …or pursuing a modernization program," Gates said.
Gates' comments, made before he agreed to stay on as Defense secretary for Obama, don't necessarily reflect the new administration's views.