By WILLIAM MATTHEWS DefenseNews.com
With a vote approaching on whether to substantially increase funding for work on a new nuclear warhead, program opponents are urging the U.S. Congress to be leery of administration arguments that the warhead is needed.
“Clearly, the Reliable Replacement Warhead is a solution in search of a problem,” said Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association.
Kimball’s assessment came a day after U.S. Energy Department officials assured a Senate subcommittee that the new warhead is “the key enabler” for reducing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which today contains more than 5,000 nuclear weapons.
Thomas D’Agostino, acting administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) tried to convince senators on April 18 that President George W. Bush is “not trying to develop warheads for new or different military missions.”
Instead, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) is intended to be a modified version of existing warheads that is “safer, more reliable and cost-effective over the long term without nuclear testing.”
Members of the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee were skeptical, and asked D’Agostino for a detailed classified briefing on the RRW before they have to vote on the Energy Department’s $9.4 billion 2008 budget request, possibly in May.
The RRW part of that is relatively small — $89 million — but that’s more than three times the program’s current budget.
“Mainly, this is a program by the weapons labs for the weapons labs,” Steve Fetter, an Arms Control Association board member and dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, said during a briefing aimed at convincing Congress to be wary of the RRW program. “It’s a self-licking ice cream cone.”
Lawmakers should understand the program well before voting to go ahead with it, said Sidney Drell, a long-time adviser to the U.S. government on nuclear weapons matters.
The RRW program has two parts: One is to refurbish existing warheads into “reliable replacements.” The other is to renovate the complex of labs and production plants that produce nuclear weapons.
The second part of the program is less controversial, Drell said. Some of the plants date to World War II and are in poor condition.
But it is impossible to decide what to replace them with until more has been decided about the warhead portion of the program, he said.
Existing plans call for a nuclear arsenal of 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads and a stockpile of 3,000 to 5,000 in reserve.
The infrastructure to maintain a stockpile of 5,000 warheads is much different than one needed to maintain a stockpile of 500 weapons, Drell said. But no one yet knows how big the future nuclear arsenal will be with or without the RRW, he said.
As for the RRW itself, many questions remain, Drell said: Can the NNSA actually build a safer, more reliable warhead that does not need to be tested with an underground explosion? If so, will that lead to substantial reductions in the nuclear arsenal? Is the RRW even needed? Drell argues that it might not be.
Studies by the NNSA concluded last fall that the plutonium cores of current warheads can be counted on to work for at least 85 years, twice as long as earlier thought.
On average, warheads in the current nuclear arsenal are 19 years old, although some are more than 35 years old, according to the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
That raises the questions, “Why now? What’s the rush?” Fetter said.
“The RRW responds to a hypothetical problem in the future” — that age might make the current stockpile of warheads unreliable, he said.
Before deciding to proceed with the RRW program, Congress should decide on a long-term plan for nuclear weapons, Fetter said.
If reliability of the RRW was the key to reducing the size of the arsenal, and new information now shows that the existing arsenal is reliable, then the United States could go ahead with stockpile reductions now, he said.
And reductions would make the RRW unnecessary. The NNSA could keep the most reliable of the existing warheads and dispose of the rest, he said.
A key issue related to the RRW is whether it can be built and put into service without testing by an underground explosion. Explosion tests would violate a test-ban treaty that the United States has signed but the Senate has not ratified.
Many fear that a U.S. resumption of nuclear weapons testing would encourage other countries to follow suit.
D’Agostino said he would not recommend going forward with the RRW if it could not be certified without explosion testing. But he said he could not guarantee that testing would not be needed by the RRW sometime in the future.