Sunday, January 14, 2007
RRW, Complex2030 = DOA ?
Bush administration abandoning effort to consolidate, they say
- James Sterngold, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, January 14, 2007
At a critical moment when the government is poised to choose a design for the next generation of nuclear weapons, two influential members of Congress have threatened to eliminate funding for the new warheads due to concerns over the Bush administration's plans for refurbishing the weapons production complex.
In a previously undisclosed letter written to the energy secretary on Nov. 16, Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, who was then chairman of the House subcommittee that controls nuclear weapons spending, criticized the department's planning for the new weapons manufacturing facilities. He insisted he would fight to halt all spending for the new warheads if the department did not embrace what he said would be a more efficient, cheaper approach through consolidation of the production operations.
The letter was significant not only for its angry tone but also because Hobson was an architect and perhaps the single most important congressional supporter of the new weapons plan, known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, or RRW.
Now that the Democrats control Congress, Hobson has relinquished his chairmanship of the energy and water appropriations subcommittee. But his successor, Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., said he holds similar views and will also consider eliminating the funding.
Their opposition puts the troubled program in jeopardy just weeks before a secretive government body, the Nuclear Weapons Council, is scheduled to select a blueprint from two competing warhead designs submitted last year by the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories. No development of the designs can take place without renewed congressional appropriations on a year-to-year basis.
Visclosky's spokesman, Justin Kitsch, said Visclosky shares Hobson's views on the need to consolidate the weapons production complex to make it more modern and efficient. Visclosky is disappointed, too, in the Energy Department's approach, Kitsch said, and plans to hold oversight hearings to question department officials and possibly force change.
"It is fair to say that every option is on the table regarding funding" of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program if the department does not change course, Kitsch said.
Julianne Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the arm of the Energy Department that manages the weapons complex, said the secretary, Samuel Bodman, "welcomed comments from Chairman Hobson as well as others." She added that it is still possible a consolidated production facility might be considered.
The multibillion-dollar program to design and manufacture the new weapons has been dogged by questions and criticisms from its inception two years ago.
Supporters say that the old weapons, most produced more than 20 years ago, are aging and that a new generation of nuclear warheads would enhance U.S. security and allow the president to maintain a smaller, safer, more reliable stockpile.
Opponents have countered that the current U.S. stockpile of more than 5,000 warheads can, with proper maintenance, continue to serve as a deterrent for decades -- perhaps more than 50 years, according to experts. Bush administration officials have confirmed that the warhead maintenance program, called stockpile stewardship, is working superbly and that there are no uncertainties about weapons reliability.
Opponents also say the program would not only be prohibitively expensive -- probably hundreds of billions of dollars -- but also would send the wrong signal at a time when the United States is struggling to force Iran and North Korea to abandon nuclear programs.
Supporters of the program suffered a blow last year when a government study concluded that the radioactive plutonium that provides much of the devastating explosive force in thermonuclear weapons is effective for 100 years or more, far longer than earlier estimates of 45 to 60 years. The finding undermined earlier arguments that the government needed to replace the old weapons partly because of uncertainty over the useful life of the unstable metal.
A lengthy analysis of the program last month by the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan research body, also raised serious questions: whether the government could meet its stated production schedules, whether there would be any significant cost savings, and whether the new weapons would be as reliable as promised absent underground testing, which has been forbidden by Congress.
Hobson pushed through the legislation supporting the plan, partly with an argument that it would result in a more modern, efficient and smaller complex. Also, the plan is intended to shrink the nuclear stockpile, allowing the United States to demonstrate that it is reducing its weapons arsenal.
Hobson has long suggested that a key part of his plan would consolidate the aging Cold War-era facilities, now spread across the country from South Carolina to New Mexico, into a single large plant, the Consolidated Nuclear Production Complex, or CNPC.
But when the National Nuclear Security Administration released its package of proposals for the new weapons production complex last year, it rejected the consolidated plant and opted instead to maintain facilities in several states.
The plan (called Complex 2030 because it would be completed around the year 2030) infuriated Hobson and Visclosky because, they said, it would not achieve the cost savings or the efficiencies they were seeking.
"Let me make my position clear," Hobson wrote in the letter to Energy Secretary Bodman. "If the department is not willing to conduct a thorough and objective analysis of all reform alternatives including the CNPC, and instead is determined to conduct an obviously prejudicial process aimed at ensuring the department's preferred outcome, then I will not support funding for the Complex 2030 efforts, including the Reliable Replacement Warhead program."
Hobson added, "RRW is a deal with Congress, but the deal requires a serious effort by the department to modernize, consolidate and downsize the weapons complex. Absent that effort, there is no deal."
Visclosky, through his spokesman, also expressed disapproval.
"By simply dismissing a Consolidated Nuclear Production Facility without in-depth analysis or consultation with Congress ... the Department of Energy is sending the message that they intend to approach the issue of modernizing the nuclear weapons complex as an opportunity to rebuild the Cold War complex rather than make the tough calls that will ensure a complex that makes sense 50 years from today," he said.
President Bush came into office in 2001 with an ambitious plan for resuscitating a nuclear weapons complex that had stopped designing or producing new warheads with the end of the Cold War. But proposals for new low-yield warheads and for a specially designed weapon to destroy deeply buried targets -- so-called bunker busters -- were rejected by Congress.
Hobson shaped an alternative, the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, as a way, he told The Chronicle, to allow some new weapons development while also pushing the Bush administration to reduce the U.S. reliance on nuclear forces and cut costs.
His legislation set strict conditions: The new weapons had to be developed without underground testing, which has been banned since 1992, and the warheads had to only replace old ones without being designed for new military missions.
The program has received less than $30 million of funding a year, mostly to start developing designs for the first new warhead, which would be placed on the Navy's submarine-based Trident missiles. Los Alamos and Livermore submitted competing proposals last year.
Several people with knowledge of the process said the Nuclear Weapons Council is likely to combine elements from both designs but designate one lead laboratory with final responsibility for the weapon.
Hobson, however, has expressed growing concern over the Bush administration's claims about the need for new weapons and whether it would adhere to the conditions that there be no testing and no new missions. After the release of the findings that plutonium could last for a century or more, Hobson said the government's credibility had suffered.
"They've been running with RRW like you wouldn't believe," Hobson said, referring to the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. "They see this as a big pot of money to get into. This shows we can take a breather for a while."
Visclosky, through his spokesman, also said he is concerned about government claims and insisted he will not permit the National Nuclear Security Administration to transform the program into an opportunity for developing new weapons.
"RRW stands for Reliable Replacement Warhead, not Reliable New Warhead," Visclosky said.
E-mail James Sterngold at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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©2007 San Francisco Chronicle
Looks like SNL made a wise bet on this one, and is far more prepared to face the future. Less than half of SNL's current work is dependent on NNSA. What a luxurious situation!
RRW says he is.
How many warheads are necessary for deterrence? Even realists like Ken Waltz thinks not many. Does anyone think that some country will attack the US on the chance that the W76, W88, B61, B83, W87, etc, etc, won't fire with the design yield?
RRW is about funding, and we all know it.
Maybe LANL should think about attacking the real threats, like dependence on foreign oil.
(kirtland seems like a great place to build the a reactor)
Signed: Tom the truth teller