Jan 16, 2008

RRW-Related Work May Continue This Year, NNSA Says

By Jon Fox
Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON — The director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory said yesterday that a congressional decision to eliminate funding for fiscal 2008 work on a next-generation nuclear warhead means scientists will let the project drop this year (see GSN, Dec. 18, 2007).

“Of course we will not work on that because it’s been zeroed out,” Michael Anastasio said during a discussion at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here. “Where it will go in the future I don’t know.”

While Anastasio’s statement was straightforward, the agency that oversees production of the nation’s nuclear weapons has recently painted a less-clear picture for the immediate future of the Reliable Replacement Warhead.

Congressional appropriators eliminated funding for further design work on the weapon, but that does not mean all work on RRW-related projects will grind to a halt this year, the National Nuclear Security Administration has suggested.

The Reliable Replacement Warhead, as administration officials describe it, is a bid to replace Cold War-era warheads with a new design that would be easier to maintain, more reliable and cheaper to produce than the aging stockpile. The new warhead would also help maintain the viability of U.S. weapons by replacing warheads with new designs that would not require underground nuclear testing to affirm their readiness, they have argued.

In his fiscal 2008 budget, President George W. Bush had requested $88.8 million for RRW design work. Lawmakers eliminated that funding, instead calling for the Energy and Defense departments to formally reassess the nation’s nuclear weapon needs as well as its nuclear strategy.

While expressing disappointment, NNSA officials have argued that some groundwork for the new warhead can continue in the face of the eliminated funding.

“We continue to believe an RRW-type of program is the right one for ensuring the future of our nation’s nuclear deterrent,” NNSA spokesman Bryan Wilkes said in a statement released earlier this month. “Over the next year we will be working to refine our RRW certification plan and the approach to RRW security and safety, in line with congressional authorization and funding.”

The agency argues that there is still an opportunity to explore concepts relevant to the new warhead design, noting that the fiscal 2008 omnibus appropriations bill includes $15 million for an “advanced certification” campaign to ensure that any new warhead would not require explosive testing to be “certified” for the stockpile.

The JASON group, an elite scientific advisory board that advises government officials on nuclear weapon-related issues, suggested last year that more work was needed to ensure such testing would be unnecessary (see GSN, Oct. 1, 2007).

NNSA officials also point out that the omnibus funding bill includes $10 million for an “enhanced surety campaign” to develop new technologies to increase the safety and security of possible future weapons systems. Such an effort is consistent with the National Nuclear Security Administration’s effort within the RRW program to enhance security of U.S. nuclear weapons and prevent their use by terrorists or rogue nations, they say.

In his address yesterday, Anastasio called for a renewed partnership between government and the science and technology community, arguing that only such a strengthened partnership can provide the long-term solutions to security issues facing the United States.

“The Cold War has ended but the national security challenges confronting the United States and the world, however, remain daunting,” he said. “Long-term commitment to science and technology is essential to addressing these challenges.”

The defining issue is no longer a clash between great powers but rather terrorism, proliferation and a range of regional issues, he said. “While the United States does not regard the Russia and the China of today as an enemy, their evolution is also a concern and we must guard against the appearance of a peer adversary,” he added.

“In the complex geopolitics of the emerging security environment issues of rogue regime behavior, terrorist tactics, weapons of mass destruction and proliferation and deterrence all intersect with nuclear energy, energy security and global warming,” he said, arguing that science is critical to addressing this complicated nexus.

National laboratories, however, are being driven more toward addressing near-term goals with more “discrete and narrowly defined deliverables,” he warned.


Anonymous said...

"National laboratories, however, are being driven more toward addressing near-term goals with more “discrete and narrowly defined deliverables,” he warned."

Uh, I think those "deliverables" Mike talks about would be called pits. LANS/Bechtel seems very eager to start popping them out in large quantities.

Anonymous said...

according to Miller speech RRW is dead this year at LLNL: And another 10% of the work force needs to be let go by oct 08: and we still need to retain the best and the brightest at LLNL.

Anonymous said...

Retain the best and brightest? You'll be lucky if you can keep the C-grade scientists given the outlook for the labs.

Anonymous said...

Wow! A 10% layoff of regular staff at LLNL by Oct 1st. That sounds pretty serious.

Anonymous said...

12:18, I'm guessing the PBI list includes more than pits.

Anonymous said...

There is also the following concerns, from Scientific American, November 2007, p 57:

"(Reliability Concerns)

Trust But Verify

Concerns about the reliability of aging weapons first prompted the US´s Reliable Replacement Warhead program [RRW]. Some argued that older plutonium cores would degrade and impede the thermonuclear explosion they were designated to create. But subcritical tests, computer models and other analyses allayed those fears, and a government-commissioned independent review by a panel of scientists known as Jason estimates that the plutonium pits in the current W76 warheads will last a minimum of a century. Jason has therefore recommended that no action be taken other than continuing routine maintenance in the current life-extension program [LEP], such as replacing surrounding circuitry and parts as needed.

Some scientists, most prominently Richard Morse, a former group leader of bomb design as well as laser fusion at LANL, argue [classified meeting at LANL, March, 2004, and concerned scientists about W76, and elsewhere] argue that the W76 design itself is flawed. The thin uranium shell that surrounds the core would fail to contain the initial explosion long enough to channel its energy into igniting fusion for the secondary hydrogen detonation.

But many scientists and officials refute this so-called Morse effect, pointing to several successful tests of the weapons package in the 1980´s. The ´W76 is fine. It´s gone through its annual assessment,´says Hank O´Brien, RRW program leader at LLNL.

The life-extension program [LEP] itself could inadvertently cause reliability issues, however. Replacing aging parts changes the weapon incrementally. ´I couldn´t provide the fuse that was done in the 1980´s if somebody put a gun to my head,´notes J. Stephen Rottler, vice president for weapons engineering and product realization at SNL. ´The more you move away, the greater the uncertainties,´Rottler continues. ´Then you must either retire the weapon or test, and neither is an acceptable outcome.´"