Fact-checking the Washington Post

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Sep 18, 2012 No Comments ›› orepa

This past weekend, the Washington Post ran a two-article series on the plans to modernize the nuclear weapons “enterprise”—new production facilities and new life for the existing stockpile. The articles are likely to be influential because they appeared in the Post—which is why is important that we try to set the record straight. Here’s a letter OREPA would send to the Post, but they would never publish it because it is too long. And it is too long because their article was so poor.

 

Dana Priest’s largely uncritical piece on the NNSA’s $88 billion plan to modernize the nuclear weapons complex was fascinating as much for what it didn’t say as what it did. Did it cross Priest’s mind as she was granted access to a classified facility that she might be being set up to be a booster for a program in deep trouble? Did her sources at Oak Ridge really tell her all Y12 does is “processing and storing weapons-grade uranium and developing related technologies,” and that “An extended stoppage would disrupt the weapons safety work and could force the closing of domestic and foreign civilian reactors that rely on low-enriched uranium from the facility, according to the NNSA.” This is ludicrous; Y12 is not a significant supplier of low-enriched nuclear fuel; it is a weapons production facility. And the work it does is not just about safety and surety; it’s about upgrading and even introducing new military capabilities to our nuclear stockpile—what the US does at Y12 stands in stark contradiction to what we tell Iran is permissible. But, of course, the US nuclear policy double standard is unspeakable in polite company, like the pages of the Washington Post.

If Priest had done her homework, Post readers would understand that Y12 produces thermonuclear secondaries and cases—key components for US nuclear warheads, and plans for a new facility are part of the hugely expensive Life Extension Program, a program whose necessity is justified only by an undocumented assertion by the NNSA—the same NNSA that insisted plutonium pit refurbishment was urgently critical to our nuclear stockpile until the independent team of JASON experts took a look. Turns out the pits will last nearly 100 years.

If the Post wants to inform the discussion about the nation’s nuclear weapons future, it would do well to ask about the capacity to dismantle retired warheads, asking why NNSA is not investing in a modern facility to do that work at Oak Ridge. And the Post should question the wisdom of investing $340,000,000 to accelerate construction of a facility that is designed to accommodate unproven technology, putting the cart even further ahead of the horse. This deviation from “best practices,” earned its own critical report from the General Accounting Office.

But Dana Priest must know what she is talking about; she got a tour of Building 9212 in Oak Ridge—without a security clearance! That makes her at least the fourth citizen in six weeks to enter the Y12 high security area without the required security clearance. The first three were arrested and face charges in federal court in Knoxville, Tennessee. As a journalist, Priest should have used the inside track to ask tough questions about the soaring cost estimates for the Uranium Processing Facility instead of accepting the disingenuous assertion of NNSA that early estimates are hard to make, and prices are going up. As the GAO noted, there is no excuse for being that far off.

Apparently Priest didn’t have time to find any critics of the NNSA modernization plan—like Arms Control Ambassador Robert Grey who said, in Capitol Hill briefings in 2010, that major investments in new production infrastructure would leave the US with “zero credibility” in nonproliferation discussions.

The Post owes its readers better. The UPF in Oak Ridge is a boondoggle almost too big to be believed—more than half a billion dollars spent on design (still unfinished), decisions made to skip critical safety documentation (see the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board’s scathing letter), disregard for DOE’s own financial rules for independent review of cost estimates, and the utter audacity to ask Congress for a blank check (outyear budget projections “TBD” in this year’s budget request). None of this, thoroughly documented, made it into Dana Priest’s article.

Now that the Post has served up NNSA’s PR without bothering to fact check, how about assigning an investigative reporter to get to the bottom of the UPF story?


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