Thursday, March 08, 2007
View of RRW from across The Pond
From The Economist print edition
But Congress may still have doubts about modernising America's bombs
WHEN George Bush first took office, he said he wanted to reduce the size of America's stockpile of nuclear warheads to the lowest number consistent with America's security and that of its allies. But since then Mr Bush has attracted controversy, rather than committed arms-controllers, to his cause. On March 2nd the National Nuclear Security Administration, the bit of the Energy Department that looks after America's bombs, announced the winner of a competition between weapons laboratories to design a “reliable replacement warhead” (RRW). If Congress gives the nod and the money, development could get under way next year. But why build more bombs if you want fewer of them? And what will all this mean for America's vast weapons complex?
It was Congress that first nudged the administration to explore the RRW idea. It had earlier scotched plans to develop a nuclear bunker-buster, fearing that the weapon would require testing and prove all too tempting to use. The aim of the RRW, by contrast, is not to develop a new nuclear weapon. All along, Congress has laid down the clear condition that it must avoid the need for testing too.
The design chosen was put forward by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. It is based on a weapon that has already been tested but was never added to the stockpile. Some of its insides—not the explosive core—will be adapted to make it cheaper and easier to build, using less toxic materials (the old cold-war imperative to get the biggest bang for the smallest weight, so that multiple warheads could be mounted on each missile, drove scientists to push materials to the limit). Meanwhile the Livermore design, it has been decided, will also make use of elements of a rival bid by Los Alamos in New Mexico. These include mechanisms to reduce the likelihood that a stolen weapon could ever be put to terrorist use.
The administration's RRW-boosters argue that making nuclear warheads safer, cheaper and easier to build will also allow the “hedge” of thousands of nuclear warheads now held in reserve and for spares to be chopped drastically. But that also depends, in part, on a second element of the administration's plans: the consolidation of weapons-making facilities into a more modern, streamlined and responsive “complex 2030”, including new facilities to churn out “pits”—plutonium cores for bombs—at a faster clip, should they be needed to meet some unforeseen threat. Although building simpler and safer warheads may be done more cheaply, the saving will be far outweighed by the investment needed for such a reorganisation.
A big question also hangs over the future of Los Alamos, the loser in the RRW competition. It has long been argued that having two rival labs keeps the weaponeers on their toes—witness the somewhat hybrid result of the RRW competition. But scientists are no longer quite so sure about that. Los Alamos has had persistent problems of management and internal security that have lowered morale and led to something of a brain drain. Meanwhile a significant number of its nuclear scientists are heading for retirement.
Even though Congress helped kick-start the RRW effort, it may have other reservations. A recent report discovered that the plutonium triggers of weapons deteriorate more slowly than had been feared, reducing the urgency of modernisation. And the labs have other ways to extend the life of existing weapons.
Keen to avoid the impression that their modernisation plans could spark a new arms race, administration officials point out that Russia, China, Britain and France all have their own modernisation efforts planned or under way. Meanwhile the dismantling of old warheads, as part of a treaty commitment with Russia to reduce each side's stockpile to no more than 1,700-2,200 deployed strategic weapons by 2012, is being speeded up. But Congress will not let itself be rushed.
| Copyright © 2007 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.|
[The Pond here is the BIG pond, not Ashley Pond Pond. --Pat.]
The writing is on the wall for all to see. There is no way that LANL can cover for this short-fall with outside work, especially given the way they have run up the cost of an FTE to absurd levels. We are going to see some drastic down-sizing at the labs, and it will probably begin next year and continue for the years that follow. The bad news just keeps on coming.
Los Alamos' new science chief defends lab - Santa Fe New Mexican, March 8
"About 58 percent of the northern New Mexico lab's work today deals with nuclear weapons. Wallace expects that to drop to about 33 percent within five years, prompting the lab to take on other projects to keep its science capabilities honed."
If the restructuring is not done quickly, I predict that within 5 years, most of the pure research will be gone. Hopefully folks doing that research now will be smart enough to figure out how to work together to set up nonprofits to do the work. The costs will be much less to the customer who will not be contributing to upper management's salaries.
Local nonprofits will benefit the community by retaining those who already live here, and as they retire from the nonprofits, others will be hired. We are all smart enough to figure out which division, the oldest at LANL, will be hit the hardest by the growth of nonprofits. But retaining the research and the people who do it is more important than retaining a division whose life to live right now is very short anyhow.