Oak Ridger: Oak Ridge likely to benefit from Russian arms pact

Posted on December 24, 2010

An arms control treaty with Russia that the U.S. Senate approved on Wednesday is expected to eventually result in more nuclear weapons dismantlement work in Oak Ridge.

Treaty negotiations between senators and President Barack Obama also appeared to boost efforts to build a Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge.

Obama agreed to spend $85 billion during the next decade to modernize nuclear weapons sites -- and that funding could include money for UPF construction.

Tennessee's two GOP senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, supported ratification of the arms treaty, which was approved by the Senate in a 71-26 vote. "Americans are safer and more secure with the treaty than without it," Alexander said.

Known as New START, the treaty requires the United States and Russia to reduce their nuclear stockpiles, and it also resumes inspections that ended in December 2009 when the original START treaty expired.

"I am pleased to support a treaty that continues the legacy of President Reagan -- who signed the first nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia in 1987," Corker said after Wednesday's vote, which exceeded the two-thirds majority required by the Constitution.

Officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration had watched the debate closely.

"What we're seeing for the first time since the end of the Cold War is a bipartisan national consensus on what role nuclear weapons play in our defense, what we need to do to maintain those weapons, and the infrastructure required to get the job done," said NNSA public affairs director Damien LaVera.

He said the $85 billion in spending that the president pledged would affect eight NNSA sites, including three national laboratories and four production sites -- Y-12 among them.

Current cost estimates for the 350,000-square foot UPF range between $4.2 billion and $6.5 billion. It's one of two Y-12 facilities designed to consolidate storage and processing activities for enriched uranium.

"It's the new heart of Y-12," B&W Y-12 President and General Manager Darrel Kohlhorst recently remarked. Construction on another high-profile building project, the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, was completed last year.

Debate over modernization work in the nation's nuclear weapons complex had become entangled in the Senate's debate over the arms control treaty, which had appeared in jeopardy as the congressional session was drawing to a close. Senators had sought assurances that a smaller arsenal and the country's nuclear facilities, which are "becoming obsolete," would still be effective and well-maintained.

"The U.S. is currently the only nuclear weapons country not adequately investing in modernization," Corker stated in a Wednesday release. "If we are going to take weapons out of deployed status, I think most Americans would like to know the arms we do have will work, and that our hedge of an additional 3,500 weapons is safe while in storage."

Alexander said the U.S. will continue to possess up to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons, "each one up to 30 times more powerful than the one used at Hiroshima to end World War II.

"It leaves our country with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to Kingdom Come," he said.

Alexander was one of four senators who sent a letter to Obama asking him to include funding for nuclear modernization in his budget requests to Congress. LaVera said the president had committed to modernizing the nation's nuclear weapons sites in a Nuclear Posture Review in May.