Panel calls new generation of warheads a prudent hedge
The first of this two-part series examines a newly released independent evaluation of the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program. The second part will summarize the panel's concerns about the larger proposal, known as Complex 2030, of which the RRW is considered "the enabler."
ROGER SNODGRASS Monitor Assistant Editor
As the debate over the future of nuclear weapons enters the rapids of the new Congress, a report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science has provided competing viewpoints with plenty of fodder.
"Panel says case not made for new warhead," read the headline for a story earlier this week by Associated Press writer H. Josef Hebert, the pre-eminent Washington national security reporter.
When the study was released Tuesday, the nation's nuclear weapons chief Thomas D'Agostino "commended" the work and found it consistent with the National Nuclear Security Administration's plans to move forward with RRW.
"Listeners hear what they want to hear," said Robert Selden, the first director of National Security at Los Alamos National Laboratory, now retired, who was a member of the AAAS study panel. "Reporters looking for something negative are surely going to find it."
Selden was one of 13 members of a panel that drew largely upon veterans of the defense and nuclear weapons complex, but also included university professors and science policy experts.
Selden said the report was complex but that his take on it was that it is very positive.
"At the bottom line, it is positive about the prospects for RRW, as long as really good programs can be put in place to accomplish the goals that the RRW people have laid out," he said.
The program's goals include reducing some of the perceived risks of the current stockpile stewardship program, increasing performance margins and maintenance and manufacturing efficiencies.
In a teleconference just before the report was released on Capitol Hill, C. Bruce Tarter, director emeritus of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and chairman of the panel, summed up its conclusions as cautiously positive on the RRW going another step forward.
"The view is that if we were in charge of the program or Congress, to use another metaphor, we would see another card." He said the panel thinks the project is "doable," but they would like to see what the numbers are that come out a proposed next phase of the engineering studies and costs estimates.
On March 2, NNSA completed an earlier phase when it announced that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had been named the lead designer for the first RRW warhead in a competition with Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Greg Mello, executive director of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, said the most important parts of the report are the ones that flag elements of the RRW that the panel found doubtful.
"They were not impressed by the safety, security or cost benefits of the RRW, which have been some of the strongest selling points of the concept," Mello said. He called it a "both-and" type of program, because the report would require supporting both the new experimental warheads and the existing stockpile made up of legacy and refurbished warheads.
"Substantial caution is appropriate," the report stated as an introduction to the panel's first finding, that the RRW concept "could lead to a final selected design that is certifiable without a nuclear test."
These are two primary objectives for the weapon's concept, although the question of testing has also divided the ranks of supporters.
Some have argued that an untested weapon, compared to the current stockpile of weapons that are based on tests, would not be dependable enough for military use.
At the same time, the panel recommended that the first product of the program should undergo as rigorous a certification and demonstration process as any weapon in the current stockpile and "should incorporate other features that explicitly deal with the "untested" nature of the proposed warhead. They also call for an evaluation more independent and intensive than the traditional inter-laboratory peer review.