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The government announced today that it has increased the rate at which it is dismantling nuclear warheads. But don't ask for details. The actual number of weapons taken apart is classified, as are most numbers associated with the stockpile.
Some lawmakers and others would like to change that, as NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Thomas D'Agostino is the official at the National Nuclear Security Administration who oversees the dismantlement work. What he can tell you is that taking apart a nuclear weapon requires time and care.
Mr. THOMAS D'AGOSTINO (Deputy Administrator for Defense Program, National Nuclear Security Administration): I don't want to make it seem that this is just grab your Phillips screwdriver and start unscrewing things and taking them apart. These are warheads that have conventional high explosives. We worry about lightning. We worry about static electricity. And we are not about to tolerate any errors in this area.
KESTENBAUM: D'Agostino is proud to say that things are ahead of schedule. In the past eight months, he says they have taken apart 50 percent more nuclear warheads than in the whole previous year. But it can't get more specific.
Mr. D'AGOSTINO: I am a bit frustrated that I can't tell you the details, so it would be - I think it would be a good thing for you to hear them.
KESTENBAUM: D'Agostino says the numbers would highlight that the Cold War is over and the stockpile, shrinking. The policy to keep the numbers secret dates back to the 1990s, and it frustrates some lawmakers.
Here's Republican Representative David Hobson of Ohio at a hearing earlier this year. He wants the figures made public so there can be an open debate about what the total number of warheads should be.
Representative DAVID HOBSON (Republican, Ohio): I've been pushing this for years, and the administration has resisted. I don't know why. I suspect our potential adversaries know the number of U.S. nuclear warheads with much better precision than do the members of Congress. I think I know the number, but I can't talk about it.
KESTENBAUM: NPR asked the Department of Defense about the policy. The DOD issued a statement saying, quote, "the basis for the security requirement is to deny militarily useful information to potential or actual enemies, to enhance the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence and to contribute to the security of nuclear weapons, especially against threats of sabotage and terrorism.
But that policy hasn't stopped independent analysts from trying to pin down the numbers.
Mr. ROBERT NORRIS (Senior Research Analyst, Natural Resources Defense Council): I'm Robert Norris. I'm a senior research analyst here at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C.
KESTENBAUM: Do you know how many nuclear weapons the United States has?
Mr. NORRIS: Yes, I do. We have approximately 10,000, and we feel rather confident based on years of analysis that that's pretty close to the real number.
KESTENBAUM: Norris says sometimes there are leaks and nods from people who know, or you can do things like count the missiles that carry the warheads.
President Bush has ordered that the arsenal he started with be cut in half by the year 2012. According to Norris' figures, that will leave about 6,000 in the stockpile.
Hans Kristensen collaborates with Norris - he's at the Federation of American Scientists - and says the announcement today means the U.S. is now dismantling a few hundred warheads a year, probably.
Mr. HANS KRISTENSEN (Project Director, Federation of American Scientists): One of the ridiculous things we've run into is, just seven years ago, you could call up the Pantex plant down in Texas and ask them, oh, so how many weapons did you dismantle last month? And they would give you the number because it wasn't classified. And, you know, I find this so Alice in Wonderland -suddenly, numbers that are very important to assure other countries, friends or allies, that we're going in the right direction about dismantling nuclear weapons cannot be told anymore.
KESTENBAUM: Thomas D'Agostino, the official overseeing the dismantlement, says he has been told the secrecy is precisely because the stockpile is getting smaller. And there is concern adversaries could now use the numbers to puzzle out detailed information.
David Kestenbaum, NPR News.
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