The Stockpile's Steward: An Interview with NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino

Article excerpt

Thomas D'Agostino was sworn in on August 30, 2007, as the Department of Energy's undersecretary for nuclear security and as administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous agency within the department. On September 3, 2009, President Barack Obama announced that DAgostino would continue to hold those positions. From February 2006 to August 2007, he served as the NNSA's deputy administrator for defense programs.

In December 2010, D'Agostino, Kazakhstani Deputy Foreign Minister Kairat Umarov, and their international partners were chosen in an online poll as the Arms Control Association's Arms Control Persons of the Year for completing the job of securing material containing 10 metric tons of highly enriched uranium and three metric tons of weaponsgrade plutonium from the BN-350 reactor in Kazakhstan.

Arms Control Today spoke with D'Agostino in his office on February 18. The interview covered NNSA weapons efforts such as plutonium pit production and warhead life extension programs, including experiments that use nuclear weapons materials without generating a nuclear explosion. On nonproliferation issues, Arms Control Today asked about the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which aims to reduce and secure vulnerable nuclear materials at civilian sites around the world, and the disposition of surplus plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

The interview was transcribed by Xiaodon Liang. It has been edited for clarity.

ACT: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. You have just submitted your fiscal year 2012 budget to Congress, and we would like to ask you some questions that go to the NNSA's role in supporting U.S. efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, reducing nuclear arsenals, and maintaining the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Let's start with the NNSA's role in U.S. nuclear weapons policy. First, on the test ban treaty:

The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review [NPRl reaffirmed that "the United States will not conduct nuclear testing and will pursue ratification" of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The United States has not conducted a nuclear test explosion for almost 19 years.

Last November, the administration outlined its plan to increase funding for NNSA weapons activities, totaling more than $85 billion over the next 10 years. The directors of the three nuclear weapons laboratories wrote Dec. 1 that the proposed budgets provide "adequate support to sustain the safety, security, reliability and effectiveness of America's nuclear deterrent."

In your opinion, is there any technical reason that the United States should not ratify the test ban treaty and forgo testing for the foreseeable future?

D'Agostino: No. In my opinion, we have a safe and secure and reliable stockpile. Every year, we go through a very detailed annual assessment process where we evaluate the condition of the stockpile. We get independent input from our laboratory directors that comes through a variety of processes both within the Department of Energy and NNSA and at the Defense Department. Both of those come through independently at the top. It's very consistent on the policy message that you described: There's no need to conduct underground testing.

There is continued work that has to be done, and that's what is great about the budgets that have been submitted by the president in the past two years. They represent a very consistent view that we need to increase surveillance work because if we're going to maintain the deterrent and get into the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, we actually have to have the data in order to ensure that we understand the condition of the stockpile as it currently exists and as we expect it will progress out into the future. Because with that [surveillance! data, we use our people and put it into our machines to understand and simulate and do subcriticai experiments [which utilize high explosives and fissile materials, including plutonium, but do not generate a nuclear yield] and the like in order to ensure that we can continue to maintain the stockpile without testing. …