President Obama ran for office promising big cuts to nuclear weapons programs. So why has his administration, fresh out of the gate, proposed giving control of those programs to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who wants to build new nukes?

It's one question raised last week by an Albuquerque Journal article, which revealed the administration might transfer oversight of nuclear weapons from the Department of Energy to the Pentagon.

To former DOE official Robert Alvarez, the proposal raises "one of the big ironies" of the post-Cold War period. "Civilian control over the nuclear weapons program has become an impediment to getting rid of the weapons," Alvarez tells SFR. "If you ask the military guys about nuclear weapons, they really don't hold them as having much value anymore."

Nukes are "a pain in the neck, basically. They would rather buy new tanks and airplanes," Robert Norris, an arms control expert with the National Resources Defense Council, says. "I don't see any dark conspiracies here that this is some sort of stalking horse to revive the nuclear mission. It's the military itself that has been getting rid of them."

If the nation's nuclear labs moved to the Pentagon, as Alvarez advocated in a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article last month, "they would become small fish in a big pond. And that is a very threatening thing, because then they lose their privileged status," Alvarez says.

That may be just the idea. Greg Mello, director of independent Los Alamos Study Group, says the proposal fits with a long-term plan by some disarmament advocates to collapse the nuclear weapons programs as much as possible into New Mexico, thus limiting congressional resistance to weapons cuts. Mello opposes the move. "There is a risk of creating a citadel," he says. "If we're not careful, we can move to a whole 'nother level of military occupation."

In any event, with what looks like a bureaucratic shuffle aimed at saving money, Obama may be taking steps toward dismantling the nation's $52-billion-a-year nuclear weapons complex.

Unfortunately, what's good for world peace could be bad for New Mexico.

Minus the high-paying jobs at Los Alamos National Laboratory, northern New Mexico "would be mighty poor," Alvarez says. "You have a great amount of pressure on congressional delegations to maintain the status quo."
That was evident in the response of New Mexico's US senators and representatives to last week's news.

"It's not going to happen," Jude McCartin, spokesperson for Democratic US Sen. Jeff Bingaman, says of a transfer of the labs to the Pentagon. "You can study the issue, but you can't get it done without congressional approval. Sen. Bingaman is adamant" in opposing the move, "and he is not alone."

US Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat, said in a statement that military control would be "shortsighted and harmful," because it could endanger LANL's renewable energy programs.

Jay Coghlan, director of Nuke Watch New Mexico, agrees that Pentagon control might stifle LANL's efforts to diversify beyond nuclear weapons.

"I think that it would hurt the laboratory," Coghlan says.

He predicts LANL would split in two under Pentagon control, with the military taking charge of nuclear weapons and any "eco/green-friendly/whatever programs" remaining under the DOE.

Problem is, LANL would have to compete for federal renewable-energy funds with other institutions, and "I'm deeply skeptical that Los Alamos could be competitive," Coghlan says.

But Norris says the labs are likely to face cuts even if they remain under the DOE. "There's nothing on the horizon to revive them to even a shadow of what they were. That's the new reality," he says.

And Norris has little patience for the labs' worrywart scientists and managers. "All they do is gripe," he says. "To throw [nuclear weapons researchers] into the Pentagon under some assistant secretary of defense for blah-blah, that would really throw them into a tizzy."

Spokespeople for LANL and the DOE had no comment.