By H. JOSEF HEBERT
Associated Press writer Thursday, April 26, 2007
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has yet to make the case for building a new generation of replacement warheads and "the role of nuclear weapons" in a post-Cold War, post-9/11 world, a panel of nuclear weapons experts said Tuesday.
Development of the new warhead, the first in two decades, could have "international impacts" if critics view it as a new weapon rather than a replacement for the current aging stockpile, said the scientists, including three former directors of the government's nuclear weapons research laboratories.
Wyoming is among the states that house the current fleet of Minuteman III long-range nuclear missiles.
Some countries could see the warhead "as contrary to both the spirit and letter" of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty "unless explicit and credible efforts to counter such assertions are made," said the panel, which was convened by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to study the warhead plan.
The scientists also said in a report that it is impossible to estimate the cost of warhead modernization plan, or assure that Energy Department claims of cost savings will ever be achieved. Proponents of the program may be "overselling" the eventual benefits, the report said.
Thomas D'Agostino, head of the department's National Nuclear Security Administration, which is spearheading the warhead project, called the report "a valuable contribution" to the discussion. He said the recommendations were "consistent" with the agency's plans to move forward.
While the report raised some concerns, D'Agostino noted that it also concluded that development of the warhead "could be a prudent hedge" against the uncertainties of an aging weapons stockpile. He said NNSA will closely review the report's recommendations
The administration argues the new warhead is needed because of concerns about maintenance and future reliability of the existing warheads in an era of no underground nuclear testing. It would be designed to be more robust, more easily maintained and include improved safeguards to prevent potential use by terrorists, its proponents maintain. They also said it may allow future reduction of the number of warheads needed in reserve.
Reaction in Congress to the administration's proposed Reliable Replacement Warhead, or RRW, has ranged from skepticism to sharp opposition in recent weeks. The administration is asking for $89 million to proceed with a design plan and draw up a detailed cost estimate over the next year.
Democrats and Republicans on the House appropriations subcommittee that funds nuclear weapons activity have questioned the need for the warhead, its impact on nuclear proliferation, and whether to proceed at a time when the Energy Department also is undertaking a broad consolidation of its nuclear weapons activities.
Last week, New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, the senior Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees nuclear weapons programs and a strong supporter of the RRW program, complained that the White House, State Department and Pentagon must "take a more active role" to sell the modernization and "answer critics who says the RRW will lead to an arms race."
The panel of scientists said the Bush administration has failed to "clearly lay out the role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world that makes the case for and define future stockpile needs that argue the case for the RRW," said the report.
Without such an assessment, the report said, it will be difficult to attain broad bipartisan support for the new warhead program to be undertaken over several decades, or to counter critics' claims that it sends the wrong signal to other countries seeking nuclear weapons.
The private panel was chaired by Bruce Tarter, former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It's members included two other former directors of the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos weapons labs, senior weapons scientists, former Energy Department officials and university experts.
The Energy Department last month announced that weapons engineers at Lawrence Livermore in California would develop a design for the new warhead and detailed cost estimates. An interagency nuclear weapons council gave the go-ahead in December to proceed with planning for a new warhead to replace the current warhead on the submarine-based Trident missiles. Replacements for other warheads in the nuclear stockpile would be developed later.
D'Agostino told a congressional panel last month that the new warhead would reduce nuclear proliferation concerns because it would further reduce the total number of warheads kept in reserve and not require underground tests.
Under a treaty with Russia, the United States has agreed to reduce the number of deployed warheads in active status to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012. Another roughly 4,000 warheads are believed to be in reserved, although the exact number is classified.