WASHINGTON - President Bush has approved "a significant reduction" in the U.S. nuclear-weapons stockpile, cutting it to less than one-quarter its size at the end of the Cold War, the White House said yesterday.
At the same time, the Energy Department announced plans to consolidate the nuclear-weapons complex that maintains warheads and dismantle warheads no longer needed, saying the current facilities need to be made more efficient and more easily secured and that the larger complex was no longer needed.
"We are reducing our nuclear-weapons stockpile to the lowest level consistent with America's national security and our commitments to friends and allies," White House press secretary Dana Perino said.
The government will not provide any numbers on the overall size of the nuclear stockpile, but there are believed to be nearly 6,000 warheads that either are deployed or in reserve.
Separately, under the terms of a 2002 arms-control treaty with Russia, the United States is committed to reducing the number of deployed warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012.
Three years ago, Bush said he wanted the overall stockpile reduced to half by 2012, but officials said that goal now has been reached so further reductions are being made, resulting in the new targets for 2012.
The Energy Department has been examining ways to consolidate the complex of weapons facilities at eight major locations across the country. They include federal research laboratories and other sites involved in nuclear-stockpile stewardship and warhead dismantlement.
"Today's nuclear-weapons complex needs to move from the outdated Cold War complex into one that is smaller, safer, more secure and less expensive," said Thomas D'Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, which oversees nuclear-warhead programs within the department.
Under the consolidation proposal, which still must go through formal environmental reviews, special nuclear material used in weapons will be moved to five sites by the end of 2012 and the overall workforce will be reduced by 20 percent to 30 percent.
While none of the eight major facilities will be closed, about 600 buildings and other structures will be closed or shifted to nonweapons activities. Two testing facilities supporting weapons labs also will be closed.
While the consolidation reflects the reduction in the size of the warhead stockpile, it also is prompted by growing concern over the ability to provide adequate security for the larger complex as security demands have increased sharply since the Sept. 11 attacks.
In September, the NNSA announced plans to consolidate plutonium from sites in Washington state, California and New Mexico at the Savannah River facility in South Carolina.
In a related development, the administration has been dealt a setback in its hopes of developing a new, more reliable warhead that would eventually replace aging warheads.
The broad omnibus spending bill expected to be approved by Congress eliminated money for the "Reliable Replacement Warhead" for the current fiscal year.