Oct 3, 2007
Depending on an observer's perspective, a new report by an independent assessment team raises doubts or confirms proponents' ideas about plans for a Reliable Replace Warhead (RRW).
The replacement warhead concept plays a central role in future directions of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which supervises the nuclear weapons complex.
The report, which has already inspired various interpretations, was produced by JASON, a group of scientists who are regularly called upon for high-level technical assessments of complex defense issues.
A criterion for the replacement nuclear weapon is that it would not require future testing to qualify for certification in the nuclear stockpile.
While saying the project has kept appropriate technical principals in mind, the authors stated, "(C)ertification is not yet assured."
The current design, known as WR1, was chosen in a competition between Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The unclassified Executive Summary of the JASON report recommended "additional experiments and analyses are needed that explore failure modes, and assess the impact of performance of new manufacturing processes."
"The present report just adds one more reason to kill the RRW now, before wasting even more money and distracting the NNSA from its care responsibilities," Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group commented in a written analysis for the media. He cited "increased costs" inherent in the "increased difficulties."
The warhead is one of the sticking points in the energy appropriation standoff between the House, which has passed a bill, and the Senate that has only passed a committee recommendation.
The House zeroed out the RRW, concluding in the report accompanying a bill, "The Committee is unconvinced that pursuing the RRW design competition to a production phase is necessary at this time."
The Senate report expressed a willingness to go for another round, despite some misgivings.
"The committee is divided on Reliable Replacement Warhead program," the Senate report acknowledged.
The Senate appropriation committee proposed $66 million of the $88 million requested by the administration, to complete the next phase of design definition and costs studies.
The nuclear weapons agency embraced the JASON report, saying it confirmed issues that are meant to be studied in the next phase of the project.
"I am pleased that the JASON panel feels that we are on the right track," said NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino in a prepared statement.
In a statement Tuesday, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said, "I hope we can all agree that the laboratories need to get on with the appropriate research as provided in the Senate Bill."
The JASON report concluded, "Establishing that the case for confidence in any RRW has been satisfactorily made will require a new peer review process," adding that they were not asked to compare the merits of the RRW program to other options, such as the current program for extending the useful life of existing nuclear weapons.
"We were not shown material on cost or schedule sufficient to establish the impact of WR1 on the nuclear weapons complex," the JASONs wrote.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who has pushed for independent reviews with unclassified summaries and who secured an amendment for a previous report by the JASONs on plutonium aging in nuclear weapons, commented on the new study.
"This backs up a previous JASONs report that says when it comes to RRW, we need to conduct additional research," Bingaman said this morning.
Jack Jekowski, a principal partner of Innovative Technology Partnerships in Albuquerque, is a consultant and authority on the current debate about transforming the nuclear complex.
"Overall, if this report is read in context, it will be the call to significantly enhance the scientific work at all three laboratories to ensure the robustness of our future stockpile, and to encourage a significant amount of work to assess what the future of the weapons complex should be to ensure that robustness," Jekowski concluded in an e-mail response this morning.