Tuesday, April 24, 2007(04-24) 10:32 PDT -- A long awaited report from a high-level panel of scientists has raised serious questions about whether a Bush administration effort to begin building new generations of nuclear weapons -- known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead program -- can achieve its stated goals.
The report concludes 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 a U.S. effort to restart nuclear bomb production could provoke an international arms race.
The report was produced for the government under the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and its 13 members consisted of a number of highly regarded nuclear experts, including three former directors of the weapons design laboratories -- two from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory -- with decades of experience designing and overseeing weapons work.
The report, which was delayed for months by internal disputes among the panel's members, said there were legitimate concerns about the long-term reliability of the current nuclear stockpile, and thus some reason to study the production of new warheads. But the 34-page study included a long list of questions that essentially suggested the Bush administration may be overselling the benefits of the program.
The report also notes that the White House is pushing for the expensive program in a policy vacuum. The military has not requested the new warheads, the report notes, the Bush administration has not detailed how many new warheads it needs and it has neither articulated a new nuclear strategy for the weapons nor has it hammered out a bipartisan agreement on future weapons needs.
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."
The report adds that, during the Cold War, the development of new warheads normally followed a request by the Pentagon based on a specific military need. Not for the new program, which is known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead, or RRW.
"The RRW is a particularly unusual situation in that it does not respond to a new military capability or mission need," according to the report.
The Bush Administration has long sought funding for a major program to restart production of nuclear weapons, which was halted with the end of the Cold War. Since then, the United States has maintained its old arsenal through a program called stockpile stewardship.
This new report says that, as others have concluded before, the stewardship effort has worked well and the old weapons are likely to be reliable for many decades. It says that, as the weapons age, flaws may make them less reliable, but it concedes that there is currently no empirical evidence of such aging problems.
Thomas D'Agostino, the acting head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, issued a statement praising the report and suggested the conclusions supported further RRW work.
"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, said D'Agostino.
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. Some supporters of the RRW program thought the report was too critical and wanted the questions toned down, while critics of the RRW plan fought to make sure the programs problems were thoroughly examined.
That fighting was evident in notes that two members of the panel added to the report. One of these "personal comments," was by John Foster, a former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He complained that, in his view, 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 opposed any further work on the RRW program because it could be perceived as overly aggressive by other countries and spur an arms race.