Scientists' study suggests U.S. policy, goals must be clear
James Sterngold, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Both supporters and opponents of the Bush administration's effort to restart nuclear weapons production agreed that a highly critical report released Tuesday puts pressure on the White House to launch a political offensive to rescue the program or risk seeing it collapse.
The report was produced by a high-level panel of weapons experts for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, including three former directors of the weapons design laboratories -- two of those from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory -- and so its skeptical tone surprised some experts.
The Bush administration has been arguing that the nation's Cold War-era nuclear warheads are aging and a new generation of warheads should be produced, known as Reliable Replacement Warheads, or RRW. The administration has argued that the RRW program would allow it to slash the size of the stockpile while still ensuring security and cutting costs.
But the report concluded that the new warhead program may never achieve the cost savings claimed by the White House, that the supposed safety and reliability improvements are unlikely to be realized until later generations of the weapons are developed, and that any U.S. effort to restart nuclear bomb production -- which was halted after the Cold War -- could provoke an international arms race.
One of the report's sharpest criticisms was that the Bush administration is pushing the new warhead program without having detailed a new strategy for how the weapons would be used or providing a rationale for maintaining a large nuclear weapons stockpile. It also noted that the military has not insisted on the Reliable Replacement Warheads program.
Since issuing a broad statement on policy in 2001, "there have been no presidential or Cabinet-level administration statements dealing with nuclear weapons," the report says. "In particular, there have been no policy statements that articulate the role of nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War and post-9/11 world and lay out the stockpile needs for the future."
Some lawmakers and weapons experts said that without such a clear policy from the Bush administration it would be hard to gain public and, more critically, congressional support for the multibillion-dollar program, which is likely to take decades.
"Without an overall strategy for nuclear weapons, and whether or not they still have a place in the U.S. arsenal, you are not going to be able to gain the necessary support," said Phil Coyle, an Advancement of Science panel member and a former senior official at the Pentagon and at Livermore, who is now a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, who chairs the House subcommittee on strategic forces, generally supports the Reliable Replacement Warheads program, as long as the old weapons are maintained properly until the new production begins. In a statement Tuesday, she said the report added emphasis to the need for the White House to provide clearer and more vocal support for the program.
"If RRW is going to move forward and we are to realize the program's real potential, its risks must be identified and clear policy objectives must be outlined," Tauscher said.
Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., chairman of the House subcommittee that controls nuclear weapons spending, suggested that funding for the program should not proceed until the White House has made its case for the new generation of nuclear weapons.
"I believe it is crucial to have a comprehensive defense strategy that defines the future mission, emerging threats, and the specific U.S. nuclear stockpile necessary before proceeding with the RRW," said Visclosky, who has expressed misgivings about the rationale for the program.
The government's key nuclear weapons agency responded by saying that the report appears to support modernizing the country's nuclear arsenal, and signaled that it intends to move forward.
Thomas D'Agostino, acting head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the weapons complex, said, "Several of the AAAS report's recommendations reaffirm our ongoing plans to study the RRW concept and move forward with our modernization and transformation efforts, which will lead to smaller, more efficient and more secure nuclear weapons facilities."
Several panel members have said that the report was supposed to have been released earlier this year, but it was held up by internal infighting over how critical it would be of the Reliable Replacement Warheads program. The dispute was evident in notes that two members of the panel added to the report.
One "personal comment" was by John Foster, a former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who said the report focused too much on problems in the RRW program and not enough on the risks of trying to maintain the current weapons stockpile.
The other note, by Charles Curtis, a former senior Energy Department official, said he opposes any further work on the RRW program because it could be perceived as overly aggressive by other countries and spur an arms race.
E-mail James Sterngold at Jsterngold@sfchronicle.com.