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The push to rebuild the U.S.'s nuclear stockpile


Russia and China have been modernizing their nuclear arsenals for years, but much of the U.S. nuclear stockpile is decades old. The government is now ramping up efforts to replace or rebuild thousands of nuclear warheads and the missiles, bombers and subs that carry them. It's an enormous task. And as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, the hardest part is finding workers.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: There's a sprawling gray factory on the very edge of Kansas City, Mo., busy night and day making parts for nuclear warheads.


MORRIS: That's the door to the least secure part of this plant, Eric Wollerman's office. He runs the Kansas City National Security Campus, where 80% of the nonnuclear parts for U.S. nuclear warheads are made. It's painstaking work.

ERIC WOLLERMAN: Every single component that we make is safe, secure and reliable because it's going in a nuclear weapon.

MORRIS: And this work is picking up speed. From Eric Wollerman's office windows here you can see shuttle buses full of workers arriving from satellite parking. The lot is full. Wollerman says the plant's hired 1,600 people just this year, and it's not nearly enough. By fall, Wollerman hopes to employ almost triple the number of workers this plant had just a few years ago. That would be 7,000 people. He needs them, like, yesterday to help upgrade and replace weapons designed and built for the Cold War.

KELSEY HARTIGAN: We've kind of kicked the can down the road to the point where, you know, game on. This has got to happen, and it's got to happen now.

MORRIS: Kelsey Hartigan describes herself as a lifelong nuke nerd. She's at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and says this goes way beyond warheads. The U.S. is replacing all its intercontinental ballistic missiles, stealth bombers and nuclear submarines, too. The price tag is likely to top $1 trillion. It's an enormous job that's going to be spread out across most of the country.

HARTIGAN: In layman's term - really, really big. You're looking at, at least 25 states plus the District of Columbia. But honestly, that is probably a pretty severe undercount.

MORRIS: And there are monumental problems - the supply chain, for one. Remember when you couldn't get toilet paper? Well, the government is having a hard time sourcing nuclear-qualified piping and safety gear for a nuclear warhead core factory it's trying to build in South Carolina. Inflation is jacking up the price of everything. And then there's staffing.

HARTIGAN: They are facing a massive shortage of specialized craft and trade workers in particular.

MORRIS: Every bit of this work has to be done by U.S. citizens who can pass security screening - no outsourcing, no offshoring. And it requires skills and mechanical aptitude many Americans lack.


MORRIS: That's where this workshop comes in.

MARTHA MCCABE: So this is the Kansas City Engineering Zone, and it's an urban build space for four of our urban high school first robotics teams.

MORRIS: Martha McCabe directs the KC STEM Alliance. Today, she's minding four teams of brainy-looking high schoolers feverishly building robots from scratch. The shop is spartan - no windows, just bright fluorescent lights and lots of industrial equipment donated by the Kansas City National Security Campus, the local nuclear weapons parts factory.

MCCABE: All this equipment - you have drill presses. You have lathes. You have a horizontal bandsaw.

MORRIS: The factory's lost many of its most experienced workers to retirement recently. It currently has 600 openings. A smart kid with a high school diploma, one able and willing to pin down a security clearance, can make at least $31 an hour starting with lots of room to move up. McCabe says that kind of job can be life-changing.

MCCABE: Oh, 100% a path out of poverty, and not only for the individual but for their family.

MORRIS: So the U.S. faces a major manufacturing challenge - rebuilding its entire nuclear arsenal. And that can't happen without tens of thousands more American factory workers willing to commit their careers to building weapons that almost no one wants to use.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLIE EILISH SONG, "YOUR POWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.