Posts from May, 2006

GAO report on anthrax vaccine production does not instill confidence

The Government Accountability Office released a progress report on the production of a safe effective vaccine against anthrax. We have posted copies of the May 9th report and the highlights on the FAS website.

The report, like their past reports on this issue, cites continued disorganization on the part of the government. Namely, they note that there has been little progress in the area of testing of the current vaccine for safety, effectiveness and reliability. The GAO had previously noted that there has been no long-term safety data, no studies on the optimum number of doses, and inadequate human clinical data. The GAO called upon the Director of Homeland Security to form a strategic plan for the development and safety testing of the vaccine including interagency cooperation.

In 2004, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded a contract for $877.5M for 75 million doses of anthrax vaccine to VaxGen, Inc, a company that had not previously developed and marketed any drugs or vaccines. The contract was noteworthy because it was the first award for bioterrorism countermeasure production under the Project Bioshield.

The GAO noted that the biotech community is watching the anthrax vaccine development and production carefully and warned that if it fails, companies will be less than eager to get involved with government contracts to produce future countermeasures.

Update on the Reliable Replacement Warhead

At first glance, who could complain about replacing current nuclear warheads with ones that are more reliable? After all, since we have them they should work. But the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program may do no good, may do much harm, and will cost a lot if carried forward.

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) Program is, as one might guess from the name, intended to develop more reliable nuclear warheads to replace existing warheads. One of the most important Congressional supporters of the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program, Congressman David Hobson of Ohio, was recently quoted saying, “This [the RRW] is a way to redo the weapon capability that we have and maybe make them more reliable, make them better mission capable.”
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Secret Nuclear Assurance

The administration has a new plan: as it prepares for production of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) to replace most of the nuclear warheads in the operational stockpile, it will “accelerate” dismantlement of retired nuclear warheads to “assure other nations that we are not building up our stockpile.”

According to this plan, Deputy Secretary of Energy Clay Cell told the House Energy and Water Subcommittee last week, the DOE will “increase dismantlements planned for FY 07 by nearly 50% compared to FY 06,” and is “committed to increasing average annual warhead dismantlements at the Pantex Plant by 25%.”

Big percentages sound good, but here’s the problem: Since the DOE didn’t plan to dismantle very many warheads in 2007 anyway, increasing the rate by 50% won’t dismantle much either. As congressional and administration sources told the Washington Post, fewer than 100 warheads have been taken apart annually in recent years.

Under the new plan, assuming an increased annual dismantlement rate of 150 warheads, it will take the DOE over 28 years to dismantle the roughly 4,300 warheads it has pledged will be cut from the stockpile by 2012. To meet the deadline, DOE will have to increase the dismantlement rate to more than 700 warheads per year.

What does “accelerated dismantlement” look like? It looks like what we did back in the 1990s, when the United States scrapped some 11,000 nuclear warheads! Since then, the DOE’s priorities have changed from nuclear dismantlement to life-extension of the “enduring” nuclear stockpile. For the next decade, unless Congress or a new administration intervenes, DOE will be busy extending the life of the stockpile rather than dismantling it.

But since an official objective of the administration’s new plan is to “assure other nations,” why not tell them what the warhead numbers are? Why this Cold War nuclear secrecy? The numbers need to be kept secret, the nuclear custodians warn, because if we told other nations how many warheads we dismantle, they might be able to figure out the size of our stockpile, and that would be bad for national security. But how does the administration plan to assure other nations if they cannot be told? While we wait for the administration to figure that out, here is the stockpile number: today, roughly 9,960 warheads; in 2012, nearly 6,000 warheads. Reassured?

A Coming Russian Information Technology Boom?

As I mentioned in my blog entry of February 23, 2006, Russia’s economy is booming. This is largely due to increasing revenues from its oil and gas industries. So high-profile are these industries that foreign investors and energy companies are aggressively getting in on the action. ConocoPhillips, for example, owns a 17.1 % stake in Russian oil giant Lukoil and Royal Dutch Shell has a prominent stake in Russian oil and gas. But the Russian companies themselves are on the march: Gazprom recently bought Sibneft to become the world’s second largest oil company in its sector after Exxon Mobil.
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Chinese Nuclear Weapons Profiled

The Chinese nuclear stockpile appears to be only half as big as previously thought, according to a new overview published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Up to 130 warheads may be deployed out of a total stockpile of some 200 warheads. Several new weapon systems are under development which the Pentagon says could increase the arsenal in the future, but past US intelligence projections have proven highly inflated and inaccurate. The new overview will be followed by a more detailed report published by the Federation of American Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council this spring.

See also: Chinese Nuclear Submarine Cave Discovered