Saturday, March 03, 2007
A new class of nuclear weapons is being designed to replace the W-88 warhead, which is fired from submarines.
New Design for Warhead Is Awarded to Livermore
By WILLIAM J. BROAD, New York Times, March 3, 2007
The Bush administration announced yesterday the winner of a competition to design the nation’s first new nuclear weapon in nearly two decades and immediately set out to reassure Russia and China that the weapon, if built, would pose no new threat to either nation.
If President Bush decides to authorize production and Congress agrees, the research could lead to a long, expensive process to replace all American nuclear warheads in the next few decades with new designs.
The first to be replaced with the new Reliable Replacement Weapon would be the W-76, a warhead for missiles deployed on submarines.
Officials said the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California would design the replacement warhead based on previously tested components, allowing the administration to argue that no new underground tests would be necessary before deploying the new weapon.
Officials said, however, the Livermore design might eventually draw on technical contributions from a more novel approach on the drawing boards at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, Livermore’s longtime rival.
The surprise choice of a single laboratory reversed a tentative decision, reported in January, to combine elements of the Livermore and Los Alamos designs. In a behind-the-scenes debate over the last two months, nuclear experts inside and outside the government faulted the hybrid approach as unusual and technically risky, with some calling it a “Frankenbomb.”
Administration officials said the Livermore design had won primarily because its main elements were detonated beneath the Nevada desert decades ago, making it a better candidate under the nuclear test ban treaty, which the United States has signed but not ratified.
Thomas P. D’Agostino, acting administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration at the Energy Department, told reporters that the Livermore design was “the most conservative approach.”
Administration officials said the hybrid had been rejected after senior members of the Navy, which will manage the W-76 replacement, worried that members of Congress would perceive it as more likely to require explosive testing.
The announcement of the research path had been expected in early January but was delayed, officials said, because of last-minute Navy concerns over control of financing and dividing the scientific labor.
The potentially expensive initiative faces an uncertain future and has generated much criticism from skeptics who argue that a new design for the nuclear arsenal is unneeded and is a potential stimulus to a global nuclear arms race.
“This is a solution in search of a problem,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a group in Washington. “There is an urgent need to reduce these weapons, not expand them. This will keep the Chinese, the Russians and others on guard to improve their own stockpiles.”
Among lawmakers who declared their opposition was Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California.
“What worries me,” Mrs. Feinstein said, “is that the minute you begin to put more sophisticated warheads on the existing fleet, you are essentially creating a new nuclear weapon. And it’s just a matter of time before other nations do the same thing.”
Critics had ridiculed the hybrid approach as a compromise dictated by the politics of survival for the nuclear laboratories, rather than technical merit. In an unusual move, even senior arms designers spoke out publicly against what they called serious risks of merging differing designs from different laboratories.
“A hybrid design by inexperienced personnel, managed by committee, is not the best approach,” John Pedicini, technical head of the design team at Los Alamos, said last month in a public blog entry.
Mr. Pedicini conceded that the Livermore design had features “that are an advance over ours, and if we get the assignment, I would incorporate them in our design.”
“If this is what is meant by hybrid,” he said, “then the outcome would be good.”
The goal is to replace the arsenal of aging warheads with a generation meant to be sturdier, more reliable, safer from accidental detonation and more secure from theft.
The replacements will have the same explosive yields and other military characteristics of the current weapons, officials said, a point that senior administration officials have made to Russia in arguing that the new weapons do not represent an expansion of the American arsenal.
Mrs. Feinstein cited a report in December saying plutonium pits have a lifespan of at least 85 years, leading critics to question whether the new weapons are necessary.
(David E. Sanger contributed reporting.)
[Thanks for the plug on the blog, Bill! --Pat]
"Brad Holian, a retired Los Alamos scientist who still works part time in the weapons division, said the 'team is thoroughly demoralized.'
"He described as 'dog treats" the idea that Los Alamos scientists could participate by reviewing Livermore designs and working on some secondary components."
OK, Brad. "Dog treats," eh? You know, some of us wouldn't mind a few treats once in a while, for a change, from that so-called crack team at NNSA.
--Pat, the Dog who hasn't had treats in six years.
Here are my favorites:
Nancy Bertossa, Aptos - The "We Really Hope It Works But If It Doesn't We Were Just Kidding Warhead." In military circles, also known as DAMMAPOTP: "Drop as much money as possible on the problem."
Philip Ha, Oakland - The ICTBSW, aka the "I Can't Think of a Better Solution Warhead."
Timothy Moder, Berkeley - "Bush's Finest Hour." This is a lot cheaper than Iraq and hasn't killed a single person to date.
Ted Loewenberg, San Francisco- "The Nuculearator" fits well with Bush's command of the English language. There's no logic in calling the weapon "reliable" because it must be, by definition. Let future generations remember Bush's militarism and his foreign policy failures by relying on a "Nuculearator" trump card in the silos.
John Bejarano, San Mateo - How about: "The warhead named by a progressive newspaper wasting its space by asking people to name it in such a way as to try to bring further obloquy to an already deservedly embattled Bush administration for the entertainment purposes of their readership's leftist majority." Or is that too long?
[Doesn't lend itself to a snappy acronym ... -Pat]