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.
Congress is skeptical. After providing money previously for warhead research, it refused this year to pay for further development. Lawmakers cited recent studies that found no immediate threat that the aging of warheads and other critical weapons components has significantly eroded their capabilities.
Members of both parties said it would be wrong to embark on a major, multibillion-dollar program to produce a new warhead without determining what sort of nuclear weapons the nation will need in future years, how many will be required and how they will be used. So Congress required the independent review that's due next year.
"We have to make certain that our nuclear deterrent is reliable … but the decision (on new production) has to be made in the context of all the national security issues we face, including non-proliferation," says Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., head of a Senate appropriations subcommittee that controls nuclear weapons spending.
Building the warhead could affect Obama's goal of getting other nations to curb nuclear programs, he says. "It's our responsibility to be a leader in trying to, first, stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and second, in reducing the number of nuclear weapons on the planet."
Indeed, any move on warhead production will come in the context of several other big, international decisions Obama will face on nuclear weapons policy during his first term. Among them: whether to extend or renegotiate the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which expires at the end of 2009, and whether to push for ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which the United States complies with voluntarily.
Obama has signaled he will give great weight to the implications that resuming warhead production might have on his non-proliferation agenda.
In an article in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, then-candidate Obama wrote of "de-emphasizing" the role of nuclear weapons worldwide and said "America must not rush to produce a new generation of nuclear warheads." More recently, he chose former Georgia senator Sam Nunn, an ardent advocate of reducing global nuclear weapons inventories, to advise his transition team.
The question of whether to adopt the Bush administration's plans "will be one of the most momentous (nuclear policy) decisions since the end of the Cold War … and Obama has spoken in support of moving toward a nuclear weapons-free world," says Susan Gordon, president of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a coalition of nuclear watchdog groups.
The new warhead has more capabilities than current warheads, she adds, and would "move us further down this road of a world of nuclear haves and have-nots."
Advocates of the new warhead say it can help Obama's agenda to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
"This isn't about building new weapons — exotic bunker busters or suitcase bombs — but reliable, more secure and less costly weapons," says Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. The warhead "would allow deeper cuts in our nuclear stockpile" because remaining weapons would be more dependable.
"If you believe nuclear weapons are still relevant, RRW is a good thing. If you believe they should go away, it's a great thing," says Robert Smolen, deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the weapons complex.
Some lawmakers who will review any decision Obama makes aren't ready to back that argument.
"My fear is, for all our talk and our actions (on non-proliferation), the international perception will be that we simply want to proceed with a new weapon," says Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., who chairs a House panel that oversees the weapons complex.
Obama's challenge is working with Congress to set a weapons policy that is consistent with U.S. security needs and broader goals of limiting nuclear weapons, he adds. "It's not just a burden, it's a fundamental opportunity."