By WILLIAM MATTHEWS
DefenseNews.com 06/15/07 15:23
So far this year, three of the four U.S. congressional committees that oversee nuclear weapons have voted to cut or eliminate funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW).
The fourth one hasn’t acted yet, but there’s a palpable lack of enthusiasm for building a new nuclear weapon.
Except when it comes to Thomas D’Agostino.
Despite the recent string of political setbacks, the acting chief of the National Nuclear Security Administration said June 15 he believes he can turn Congress around.
During a June 15 address at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D’Agostino said that when he meets with House and Senate members individually, and when he is able to discuss classified details of the proposed warhead in closed meetings, he is able to change lawmakers’ minds.
“It’s not a new weapon, it’s a replacement warhead,” D’Agostino said. “It’s not the RNEP, it’s not a micro-nuke. That message needs to be repeated to Congress.”
The RNEP was the robust nuclear earth penetrator. Micro-nukes, or mini-nukes, were low-yield nuclear weapons. Both were pushed by President George W. Bush as needed new nuclear weapons. Both were killed by Congress in 2005.
By contrast, RRW would not add to the U.S. stockpile, but would replace existing warheads.
D’Agostino is polishing his sales pitch.
The RRW would be safer, cheaper, more environmentally friendly and, as the name suggests, more reliable than today’s warheads, he told the Woodrow Wilson gathering.
He added that:
• The RRW would feature “insensitive high explosives” to trigger the nuclear blast in place of the high explosive triggers in most current warheads. Thus RRWs would be much less likely to explode in an accident or an attack on a nuclear weapon site.
• RRWs would be produced without some of the toxic ingredients used in current weapons, including beryllium, a particular heavy metal that D’Agostino would not name, and an explosive solvent.
• Freed from Cold War requirements to pack as much explosive power into as small a space as possible, RRWs would be less intricate, thus more reliable.
• They can be built and guaranteed to work without explosive testing.
• They would permit the “fairly dramatic” reductions in the number of warheads needed in the U.S. stockpile. A smaller stockpile would cost less to maintain and guard.
D’Agostino will almost certainly have a chance to make those points repeatedly to lawmakers and many others. The House is calling for a commission to conduct a national debate over the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security before proceeding to develop any new warheads.