Sunday, January 21, 2007
How Robust; How Reliable?
Waiting for RRW
How new and how reliable will replacement warheads be?
ROGER SNODGRASS Monitor Assistant Editor
An announcement on the nation's new nuclear weapons plans has been anticipated for several weeks now, but another week has passed without news of the Reliable Replacement Warhead.
Only a few weeks remain before the Department of Energy will unveil the administration's budget request for the fiscal year that starts in October 2007.
While not yet a big budget item, the RRW has become the centerpiece and driver of a number of big plans, not only for replacing the current set of warheads, but also for reorganizing the nuclear weapons complex managed by DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration.
"The Reliable Replacement Warhead will provide means to ensure the long-term reliability of the stockpile and enable us to establish a safer and more secure nuclear deterrent," said outgoing NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks in a summary statement. "It will give us the tools we need to build on the president's vision of maintaining the smallest nuclear stockpile that is consistent with national security requirements."
Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories have been engaged in a design competition to help the policy-makers determine if such a warhead can be made that would provide long-term confidence in the nuclear stockpile, but would not entail a return to nuclear testing.
NNSA officials announced on Dec. 1 that they were satisfied with the feasibility of the RRW plan, but they had not yet made a choice between the LANL and LLNL versions. A decision was expected in a few weeks.
In the meantime, Brooks has been dismissed by Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman over continuing security breaches at LANL. His interim replacement, Tom D'Agostino, played a prominent role in developing and rationalizing the RRW concept within the administration and before congress throughout the last year.
Regardless of which design is chosen, Congressional approval will be needed to move beyond the blueprints into detailed design and technical feasibility assessments next year, leading toward engineering and development of actual replacement warheads two years later.
Among the issues surrounding that approval are questions of need and reliability, given that the plutonium pits that trigger the nuclear explosion in the current stock of hydrogen bombs were recently pronounced younger than had been thought by the independent research organization known as JASON.
The group concluded in their "Pit Lifetime" review on Nov. 28, 2006 that the pits should last, not 45 years as had been previously held, but 85-100 years.
Concerning reliability, a report prepared by the Congressional Research Service last month to brief congress on the Reliable Replacement Warhead underlined a number of ambiguities about the terms "reliable and replacement," which the report said no longer seem appropriate.
In presenting the plan to Congress, Brooks found it necessary to emphasize the safety and reliability of the existing stockpile and to de-emphasize the idea of "replacement," when the new weapons are supposed to be "used on existing aeroshells and missiles."
In addressing the issue of newness, Brooks said last year during a visit to Los Alamos that the RRW should not be classified as a new weapon because it is intended as a replacement to do the same job for the same military purpose against the same class of targets.
"It would have the same characteristics," he said. "It is really not about improving military capacity, but increasing reliability to respond to problems."
The idea of whether the "newly designed" future warheads are "new" or "replacements" is highly arguable and the plans to make them have already been judged by some as a breach of international law under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The article calls for each of the parties to the treaty "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."
Questions about reliability lead in turn to questions about another sensitive subject, the resumption of nuclear testing.
A recent review of stockpile issues by the Department of Defense Science Board incorporating much of the rationale for RRW simply assumes that weapons should be newly designed every 20-25 years and that underground nuclear tests would go forward "as needed."
"I think it is very likely testing will happen. It is going to be very difficult to include weapons with pits with new designs and claim they're more reliable than pits that don't have aging issues," said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.
He said that was especially true if, as the New York Times reported on Jan. 7, NNSA has decided "to seek a hybrid design combining well-tested elements from an older design with new safety and security elements from a more novel approach."
In commenting on NNSA's overall reorganization plan, known as Complex 2030, Makhijani argued that the chances of a resumption of testing for the replacement warhead designs posed "a foreseeable major consequence" much more probable and hazardous than a facility-wide plutonium spill.
"It would be at least one chance in 10 if not a chance in two," he said.
Without testing, the weapon would become "an unreliable non-replacement warhead," he added. "There is no way to tell the outcome, or what the defense department is going to feel about their reliability compared to existing weapons."
Jodie Dart, program director for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability in Washington cited a recent editorial in the New York Times in which two former Republican Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, joined Democrats William Perry and Sam Nunn in calling for nuclear weapons states to end their reliance on nuclear weapons.
"There is now pressure from both sides in opposition to nuclear weapons, Dart said. "We want to turn this into a debate on U.S. nuclear weapons policy. A lot of people don't know we could be starting a new nuclear arms race."
* Jan. 24th, 2007 at 1:36 AM
Well, well what on earth is up with the Reliable Replacement Warhead? The Los Alamos Monitor has said it best
…An announcement on the nation's new nuclear weapons plans has been anticipated for several weeks now, but another week has passed without news of the Reliable Replacement Warhead…
The Los Angeles Times has provided us with some pretty interesting insights into reasons for the delay.
…An effort to design the nation's first new nuclear bomb in two decades has run into delays, as top experts question whether a bureaucratic compromise could hamper the new weapon's effectiveness.
The Bush administration was expected to select a winning design from two proposals in late November, but officials put off a decision and began considering whether competing teams at two national laboratories could collaborate in a joint effort…
The reasoning behind this idea of a “joint effort” is worth reflecting upon. Apparently if the Los Alamos design was to be given the go ahead Lawrence Livermore would have little to justify its continued existence. Perhaps this would actually please the scientists at Los Alamos given Livermore’s origins during the “ruin of J Robert Oppeinheimer” in the hydrogen bomb affair of the 1950s. But it demonstrates that the whole idea of a “hybrid design” is precisely what its critics have said all along; it’s just a set up to spread work around the nuclear weapons labs so that they can continue to justify their collective existence.
As far as the military effectiveness or role of the new warhead is concerned StratCom, according to the Los Angeles Times, has judged that both designs meet “military requirements”. What this precisely means is left in the air and I would love to know what this phrase means. For instance, StratCom has always been on the look out for a new warhead that has an earth penetrating hard target capability, like the RNEP. However, Congress has given conditional approval to research on the RRW on the basis that any new warhead would not be designed for new military missions; that is it would be precisely a “replacement” warhead. I think more on this will leak out.
Anyway, the delay basically is being caused by a further step beyond the idea of a hybrid design toward a concept whereby the two labs actively work together to develop and produce a joint design. According to the LA Times,
…To solve those political and organizational problems, the Energy Department, through its National Nuclear Security Administration, sought to explore whether the labs could produce a joint design, Strategic Command officials said.
A letter to the directors of Los Alamos and Livermore asked them to explore a collaborative approach.
No formal decision has been made, however…
And that is where matters stand on the Reliable Replacement Warhead.