The entrance to TA-55 at LANL, where all the Pu work is done.

A couple of weeks ago, word got around that Senator Kyl was taking a group of fellow Republican Senators on a field trip to visit LANL and Sandia National Labs as part of their decision-making process regarding whether or not to vote for New START.  Sen. Corker held an event for the press when he visited Y-12 for the same purpose, the New Mexico trip was more or less closed to the press, though Roger Snodgrass of the Santa Fe New Mexican did manage to get Democratic Sen. Bingaman to say a few things about their trip. (“A lot of good questions were asked and answered during the briefings.”)

Presumably, the Senators wanted to find out what’s going on at the labs regarding stockpile stewardship, surveillance, and all things related to that magical word, “modernization”. John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal and I batted around ideas; John said that the ancient Chemical and Metallurgy Research facility, with its leaky pipes and other problems, would have been the first place he’d have taken the delegation, if he were the lab director. (For more on the proposed CMR Replacement project, read John’s excellent column here.)

Anyway, what they saw and discussed is a bit of a mystery. All we know is that Sen. Kyl returned to D.C. and held a press conference, saying that he wants $10 billion more, on top of all the other modernization funding, but failed to specify how he came up with that figure or what he wants it for.

Where I’m going with all of this is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, especially as a relative newbie to all things arms-control-wonky: “modernization” means different things depending on who you’re talking to, and I really wanted to pin it down.

If you’re Sen. Kyl, you probably think of stockpile modernization as new warheads, or even new nuclear tests, as he’s indicated in multiple op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal. There are policy analysts in the D.C. scene who feel that “new nukes” really are the only way to modernize the stockpile; for a well-written argument to this effect, read John Noonan in the Weekly Standard.

However, if you’re the NNSA, the DoD, or Congress, you’re probably more aware of the reality of the political consequences of making new warheads; the failure of Congress to fund the RRW is a good example of the outcome of that proposal.

Finally, if you’re sitting in the Oval Office, and you really want a world with zero nuclear weapons, and even gave a big speech about it in Prague, right now you’re realizing, as you said in your speech, that zero nukes are a long, long, long way off. You’re probably also realizing that “modernization” is a big, grey area, that it isn’t just throwing money at the labs or just making new warheads, but something in between.

I went into this in the context of New START in a whole lot more detail in a piece I published over at Foreign Policy. Give it a read, and let me know what you think.