The Slippery Slope to New Nukes

January 25th, 2006 - by admin

Robert Civiak / San Francisco Chronicle – 2006-01-25 23:14:20 EPGQSRR1.DTL

The following column, based on the new Tri-Valley CAREs report on the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. The full report is on the web at

(January 24, 2006) — Inside the national weapons laboratories in Livermore and Los Alamos, NM, scientists are working on a project called the Reliable Replacement Warhead. Congress initiated the program in 2005 to “improve the reliability, longevity and certifiability of existing weapons and their components.” This innocuous-sounding undertaking, however, could significantly damage our national security.

The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration and the weapons labs want to grow RRW into a multibillion-dollar effort to redesign and replace every nuclear weapon in the US arsenal.

But an expansive RRW program would significantly damage US national security, because the international uproar over our country’s development of new nuclear weapons would severely disrupt global cooperation in nonproliferation and consequently diminish pressure on Iran and North Korea to forgo their weapons programs and thwart efforts to stop clandestine trafficking in nuclear materials and equipment.

The Department of Defense will likely demand that any replacement warhead undergo nuclear explosive tests before it is accepted into the stockpile. If the United States were to conduct even a single nuclear weapons test, other nations would surely follow suit, which could lead to a new arms race. The damage this would impart to the broad nonproliferation regime far exceeds any conceivable US advantage from new nuclear weapons.

A wide chasm exists between the RRW program the weapons labs are planning and what Congress believes it is funding. Last April, NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks told the Senate Armed Services Committee that we need new nuclear weapons because, “The Cold War legacy stockpile may be the wrong stockpile from a military perspective.”

Brooks believes that current explosive yields are too high, our systems are not capable against deeply buried targets, and they are unsuited to defeat biological and chemical munitions.

Nevertheless, Congress opposes building new types of nuclear weapons. It recently stipulated that weapons design work under the RRW program stay within the military requirements of the existing stockpile and that any new weapon design stay within parameters validated by past nuclear tests. This limited version of the RRW is a slippery slope, however, and will be impossible to enforce.

If the weapons labs are given approval to design any new warhead, they will be the ones to determine if specific modifications meet the funding restrictions. Over time, NNSA and the weapons labs will undoubtedly skirt congressional restrictions and will add new capabilities to nuclear weapons. The weapons labs are more interested in job security than national security. Congress will simply not be able to control the RRW program.

There is no need for any RRW program. The existing nuclear stockpile is extremely capable. It has considerable flexibility for responding to new security demands should they arise. The stockpile includes at least two warhead types for each of four kinds of delivery vehicle — land-based ballistic missiles; submarine-based ballistic missiles; aircraft; and cruise missiles. Explosive yields vary from 0.3 kilotons to 1,200 kilotons. US nuclear warheads can explode at various heights above the ground, on impact with the ground, with a delay after ground impact, and even after penetrating several feet into the ground to attack bunkers.

Neither the Defense Department nor NNSA has identified any capability it is even thinking of adding to the existing stockpile, except for an improved earth-penetrating warhead, which Congress has already emphatically rejected.

Existing U.S. nuclear weapons are extremely safe, secure and reliable. For the past nine years, the secretaries of Energy and Defense have been required to jointly certify to the president whether US nuclear weapons are safe and reliable. They have done so in the affirmative every year. Designing and building new nuclear warheads without testing them is risky.

As Hoover Institution fellow Sidney Drell and former US Ambassador James E. Goodby stated in their 2005 report for the Arms Control Association, “What are Nuclear Weapons For? Recommendations for Restructuring US Strategic Nuclear Forces”: “It takes an extraordinary flight of imagination to postulate a modern new arsenal composed of such untested designs that would be more reliable, safe and effective than the current U.S. arsenal based on more than 1,000 tests since 1945.”

The expansive RRW program envisioned by the weapons labs would be disastrous for US nonproliferation objectives. Congress thinks it can allow the labs to develop new designs, but limit the scope of the program. History shows that not to be the case.

Congress should eliminate all funding for the RRW and cancel the program before it results in new weapons development and diminishes our security.

Robert Civiak is a physicist and consultant who authored a new report on the Reliable Replacement Warhead for the nonprofit Tri-Valley CAREs, or Communities Against a Radioactive Environment. The report can be found at .

Marylia Kelley Executive Director Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment) 2582 Old First Street Livermore, CA USA 94551

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