Upgrades Planned for US Nuclear Stockpile: ‘Significant Warhead Redesigns’ Predicted

January 16th, 2006 - by admin

James Sterngold / San Francisco Chronicle – 2006-01-16 23:21:26


While the American public’s attention is being focused on Iran’s nuclear “ambitions,” the United States is continuing an ambitious, mutli-faceted program to comprehensively maintain and upgrade its own nuclear arsenal.

The following article provides an excellent assessment of the current situation. Western States Legal Foundation has been writing about this trend for many years.

For more in-depth background and analysis, you might start with ther2-page introductory Information Brief, War is Peace, Arms Racing is Disarmament: The Non-Proliferation Treaty and the US Quest for Global Military Dominance, available at http://www.wslfweb.org/docs/warispeacebr.pdf.
The full report (30 pages) is available at http://www.wslfweb.org/docs/warispeace.pdf

Upgrades Planned for US Nuclear Stockpile: ‘Significant Warhead Redesigns’ Predicted
James Sterngold / San Francisco Chronicle

(January 15, 2006) — Congress passed a landmark budget measure last year for the first upgrade of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile since the Cold War, insisting there would be limited modifications to make the warheads safer and more reliable. But in his first interview since the measure was adopted, the head of the agency that manages the arsenal described the program as a potentially far more extensive redesign of the weapons.

Linton Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said the new effort — called the Reliable Replacement Warhead program — would involve a redesign of virtually all components of the warheads, as well as the resuscitation of the complex for manufacturing them at a potential cost of many billions of dollars.

In an interview last week with The Chronicle, Brooks said the new warheads would likely be heavier and slightly larger than the ones they will replace. He added that, even as the production complex gears up for a program likely to last two to three decades or more, there would inevitably be large cutbacks at the weapons design labs. The end result will not be slight tinkering with existing warheads, as some members of Congress envisioned the program, but the creation and production of new generations of the weapons.

“I don’t want to mislead you,” Brooks said. “I will personally be very surprised if we can get the advantages we want without redesigning the physics package.” The physics package refers to the components of the warhead that create the nuclear reaction — as opposed to the conventional elements involved in the arming and detonation of the weapon — in particular the spherical plutonium core, or pit. The warheads, Brooks said, “will require new pits. … We are going to need to melt them down and recast them.” A number of members of Congress closely involved in appropriating funds for the program had said last year they considered it a major victory because it restrained the more ambitious goals of the Bush administration.

The White House had been seeking the development of entirely new types of warheads with new capabilities, such as destroying deeply buried bunkers or caches of weapons of mass destruction. Many in Congress, in particular the chairman of the committee that appropriates funds for the nuclear complex, Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, argued that such new weapons were unneeded and overly aggressive at a time when Washington is struggling to halt countries like North Korea and Iran from developing nuclear arsenals.

“This is not a sneaky way to get a whole new powerful warhead type of thing in the future,” Hobson said in an earlier interview with The Chronicle. “We’re not trying to do separate missions than those the warheads were designed for today.”

Congress instead passed the limited upgrades of the program, appropriating $25 million for the initial design work. Congress said the program would focus largely on the nonnuclear parts of the warheads, such as replacing copper wires with optical fibers, and upgrading to more modern electronic components, with little change to the physics package. ”

This is about tinkering at the margins of the existing weapons systems, nothing more,” Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, a member of the House Appropriations Committee’s energy and water subcommittee, said shortly after the $25 million appropriation was passed. But Brooks said there is already a design competition under way between the two labs, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos, managed by the University of the California, involving the need for entirely new pits, as well as a new facility to manufacture them.

Even with such redesigning, though, Brooks said he did expect to adhere to a key condition set by Congress, that the new warheads will not require underground testing, which was banned in 1992. Some critics have insisted that the military would never deploy an untested design for something as critical as a nuclear weapon, which would be used only in the face of the gravest threats.

But Brooks said the program would hew so closely to proven designs from the Cold War — the United States has produced about 90 warhead designs and manufactured more than 50,000 warheads — and involve so many modifications to ensure its reliability, that no new detonations would be needed.

“If you redesign it the way we’re going to, it creates a lesser chance” that new tests will be called for, he said, because the warhead will be “overdesigned” for safety and reliability. Most observers agree that any resumption of new US testing would likely set off a chain reaction of other nuclear-armed countries resuming tests.

The debate over the new warhead program is fundamental to United States security, but Brooks conceded it is based on vast uncertainties. The Cold War nuclear stockpile — the United States still has more than 10,000 warheads — was designed to be launched in a split second as an overwhelming response to any first strike from the Soviet Union. But with the breakup of the Soviet Union and no credible nuclear foes, the giant stockpile is a profoundly destructive force without an obvious mission. The military has not articulated a revised nuclear mission.

The Bush administration has said the greatest threats to the United States now come from terrorist groups or rogue nations, but it also says that the old nuclear arsenal is not suitable for attacking these foes. Instead, the White House says it needs the warheads as part of a “capability-based” force; in other words, it must have the capability to defeat any new foes, even if it does not know what capabilities are needed at this time, or what the missions are.

Adding to the difficulties of defining the new policy is the fact that, as Brook reaffirmed, the existing stockpile is still in perfect working order, even though some warheads are 30 years old. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States adopted an expensive program known as stockpile stewardship, and experts estimate some $60 billion has been spent studying, maintaining and refurbishing existing weapons. Brooks called the stewardship program “extraordinarily successful” and said he has complete confidence in US warheads.

“I don’t want to suggest and I hope nothing I’ve said in the past suggests that I think it is somehow obsolete,” Brooks said of the maintenance program. “It’s entirely possible that we could go on for some considerable length of time just the way we are.” In fact, experts close to Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos have said scientists are finding that plutonium — a key variable in assessing the life span of the warheads — may actually grow more stable and reliable over time, and that a study due later this year will project an extended life span for plutonium bomb components, of perhaps 100 years.

Asked why billions of dollars had to be spent on new warheads and a new production complex when the old ones are working well, Brooks said the reason is the accumulation of question marks. “I know this sounds evasive, and it really isn’t, it’s just a reflection on the inherent limitations on human knowledge,” Brooks said. “I don’t know everything I need to know about plutonium aging.” He said the new generation of warheads would avoid such uncertainties by being heavier, with perhaps more than the minimum amount of plutonium. Brooks said, in effect, that the central enemy now for US nuclear forces is uncertainty, and that the solution is to redesign the arsenal, in the process constructing new manufacturing facilities to replace the plants shut down after the Cold War.

The cost is likely to be tens of billions of dollars. An Energy Department task force last summer provided a blueprint for the new manufacturing complex. It called for major downsizing of Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos’ nuclear weapons work, but for the expenditure of billions to construct a massive new pit production plant. Brooks said he embraced the blueprint in concept. The only constraint, he said, was cost.

“My guess is we will try to meet many of the objectives of the report, but I think that most of us believe that spending several billion dollars above what is planned is unlikely to be forthcoming,” Brooks said. “We’re trying to figure out how to strike the right balance.”

E-mail James Sterngold at jsterngold@sfchronicle.com.

Copyright 2006 SF Chronicle ”

Contributed by Jacqueline Cabasso, Executive Director Western States Legal Foundation 1204 Preservation Park Way Oakland, California USA 94612-1201 Tel: (510) 839-5877 Fax: (510) 839-5397 E-mail: wslf@earthlink.net Web site: www.wslfweb.org part of the Abolition 2000 Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons and United for Peace and Justice