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US ramping up major renewal in nuclear arms

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A new plant in a former soybean field makes the mechanical guts of America’s atomic warheads. Bigger than the Pentagon, full of futuristic gear and thousands of workers, the plant, dedicated last month, modernizes the aging weapons that the United States can fire from missiles, bombers, and submarines.

It is part of a nationwide wave of atomic revitalization that includes plans for a new generation of weapon carriers. A recent federal study put the collective price tag, over the next three decades, at up to a trillion dollars.

This expansion comes under a president who campaigned for “a nuclear-free world” and made disarmament a main goal of US defense policy. The original idea was that modest rebuilding of the nation’s crumbling nuclear complex would speed arms refurbishment, raising confidence in the arsenal’s reliability and paving the way for new treaties that would cut the number of warheads.

Instead, the Obama administration is engaging in extensive atomic rebuilding while getting only modest arms reductions in return.

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Supporters of arms control, as well as some of President Obama’s closest advisers, say their hopes for his vision have turned to disappointment.

“A lot of it is hard to explain,” said Sam Nunn, the former senator whose writings on nuclear disarmament deeply influenced Obama. “The president’s vision was a significant change in direction. But the process has preserved the status quo.”

Arms controllers say the White House has made some progress toward Obama’s broader agenda. Nunn credits the president with improving nuclear security around the globe, persuading other leaders to sweep up loose nuclear materials that terrorists could seize.

In the end, however, budget realities may do more than nuclear philosophies to curb the atomic upgrades.

“There isn’t enough money,” said Jeffrey Lewis, of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Although the Kansas City plant is considered a success, other planned renovations are mired in delays and cost overruns. Even so, Congress can fight hard for projects that represent big-ticket items in key districts.

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Skeptics say the arsenal is dependable and the costly overhauls are aimed less at arms control than at seeking votes.

But the Obama administration insists that the improvements to the nuclear arsenal are vital to making it smaller, more flexible, and better able to fulfill Obama’s original vision.

Daniel B. Poneman, the outgoing deputy secretary of energy, whose department runs the complex, said, “The whole design of the modernization enables us to make reductions.”

In fall 2008, as Obama campaigned for the presidency, a coalition of peace groups sued to halt work on a replacement bomb plant in Kansas City. They cited the prospect of a new administration that might, as one litigant put it, kill the project in “a few months.”

The $700 million weapons plant survived. But in April 2009, the new president and Dmitry A. Medvedev of Russia vowed to rapidly complete an arms treaty called New START.

The accord with Moscow was hammered out quickly. The countries agreed to cut strategic arms roughly 30 percent over seven years. It was a modest step. The Russian arsenal was already declining, and today has dropped below the agreed number, experts say.

Even so, to win Senate approval of the treaty, Obama struck a deal with Republicans in 2010 that would set the country’s nuclear agenda for decades to come.

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In open and classified reports to Congress, Obama laid out his atomic refurbishment plans, which the Congressional Budget Office now estimates will cost $355 billion over the next decade. But that is just the start. The price tag will soar after 10 years as missiles, bombers, and submarines made in the last century reach the end of their useful lives and replacements are built.

“That’s where all the big money is,” Ashton B. Carter, the former deputy secretary of defense, said last year. “By comparison, everything that we’re doing now is cheap.”