Apr 27, 2007

Study: What's the plan?

ROGER SNODGRASS Monitor Assistant Editor

Thursday's account reported on a newly released independent evaluation of the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program, the driver for a proposed transformation of the nuclear weapon complex. This concluding piece considers the panel's analysis about the long-range plan, known as Complex 2030.

Part two

There were more questions about the second part of the recently released assessment by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That part had to do with the long-range plans for the nuclear weapons complex as a whole whose facilities include the three nuclear weapons laboratories along with a number of production and manufacturing sites under the supervision of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

While the study found it relatively easy to go along with NNSA's bid to create one Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW-1), at least far enough to obtain more details on what the short-term plan entailed, the panel found less assurance about the complications of a 25-year transition.

"There is no budgetary estimate, yet, for the transformation plan for NNSA," the report stated. Elsewhere, the panelists suggested that money might be made available by cannibalizing parts of the current program, but they weren't sure how much that would be.

Panel chair C. Bruce Tarter, a former director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory commented during a teleconference preceding the release of the study that "a lot of money" would be needed up front to rebuild the complex, while maintaining the existing inventory and refurbishing process.

Or, as the report puts it, "A key point is that, even with an RRW program, much of the legacy stockpile most likely will have to be sustained for decades."

And, adds the report, "Most important, the first RRW would be built essentially with the existing production complex."

It would take "a long time to see the benefits," Tarter said.


Specifically, the study found that the question of producing plutonium pits, for the replacement warheads should have the highest priority for future planning.

The question posed by the panelists was: How will NNSA accommodate a plan that can incorporate the benefits of the existing stockpile with the anticipated benefits of the RRW while at the same time modernizing the manufacturing process?

The question becomes more urgent considering that the current capacity for producing plutonium pits, the nuclear triggers on the warheads, at Los Alamos National Laboratory is significantly lower than the 100 pits required, and lead time for new pit production is 10 to 15 years.

NNSA commended the report in a press release Tuesday without a detailed response, but did note that NNSA and LANL will deliver the first production certified pit to the stockpile in nearly two decades.

Further complications arise because the Department of Defense, the customer is not just a single entity, but three - the Navy and Air Force that procure nuclear weapons from the Department of Energy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which sets policies and guidelines. The specific needs and numbers each of them will require has yet to be meshed with the NNSA vision.

Some have detected a lack of interest from the military in taking on a major new nuclear project.

In an earlier report by the Congressional Research Service, Barry Hannah, chairman of the RRW coordinating group for the Navy stated that he was very happy with the life extension program under use with the existing weapon, known as the W-76. "I believe it meets the Navy's needs," he told the researcher, Jonathan Medalia.

This is the same warhead, used on the missiles carried by the Trident submarine, that the first RRW is designed to replace.

The report acknowledged that it had not considered other issues that have been broached concerning the short and long-range programs, including whether or not the RRW weapon could be called "new," which might then have important implications for international relations, particularly with the other signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The treaty specifically proscribes new nuclear weapons.

"There is ambiguity," said Robert Selden, a former senior manager from Los Alamos National Laboratory, now retired, speaking about the report's assessment of Complex 2030. "It's probably too soon to know which path is riskier - going on as we have been or taking off on a new approach."

The new approach, he emphasized has the advantage of making the stockpile easier to maintain and making the manufacturing complex more efficient and enabling a significant reduction in the numbers of warheads that need to be kept in use.

National consensus

Finally, the report advised the Bush Administration on what it needed to do from a public relations perspective in order to establish a program that has enough bipartisan momentum that it can survive several administrations and several new Congresses over the next quarter of a century.

"We do not observe that basis has yet formed in the government," said Tarter.

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a frequent critic of the laboratory, commented on the report this week, agreeing that he did not see any consensus on nuclear weapons.

"Nuclear weapons will be a contested political terrain for the foreseeable future, in part because current policies are at odds with world opinion and the desires of most other states which have endorsed nuclear disarmament."

He said a workable compromise was possible, but that it involved "a downward glide path, toward a smaller and much less intrusive arsenal and much less investment."

He acknowledged that these were goals of the RRW and Complex 2030 program, but emphasized a distinction.

"NNSA already knows what the consensus looks like because they're using it in their public relations effort," he said. "The reality just needs to match the rhetoric."

[The first of this excellent two part series can be read here.]

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