Feb 5, 2008
Global Security Newswire
WASHINGTON — In his fiscal 2009 budget request released yesterday, President George W. Bush is seeking $10 million to continue design work on a controversial next-generation nuclear warhead that received no funding from Congress this year (see GSN, Jan. 16).
The president’s $3.1 trillion budget plan also consolidates and increases funding for nuclear weapons incident response activities within the Energy Department. Some funding has been shifted from Defense Department nuclear nonproliferation programs to enhance Energy Department response capabilities.
Overall, weapons activities within the Energy Department would receive $6.6 billion beginning Oct. 1 under the proposed budget, an increase of just over 5 percent from fiscal 2008.
Following lawmakers’ decision to eliminate $88.8 million in requested funding for the new warhead design, dubbed the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), the National Nuclear Security Administration had suggested that some work might continue in this financial year. The primary goal would be to ensure that the warhead, if developed, would not require nuclear testing to validate its design.
“We believe the Reliable Replacement Warhead concept provides some advantages and some significant benefits that are worth studying,” said Tom D’Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which overseas weapons activity within the Energy Department. “We think that this reliable replacement concept will allow us to bring 21st century security and technologies into our stockpile.”
Administration officials have argued that the new warhead, intended to first replace the W-76 warhead deployed on U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles, would be easier to produce and maintain than a Cold War-era arsenal that is becoming increasingly expensive to sustain. The new warhead would also reduce the risk that the existing weapons need to undergo underground explosive testing to verify their efficacy, officials have said.
Energy Department officials have repeatedly assured Congress that any RRW design produced would not need to be explosively tested. However, a study completed last year by the JASON group, an advisory board that often comments on U.S. nuclear programs, suggested that the science backing such an assertion needs further development (see GSN, Oct. 1, 2007).
The funding requested for fiscal 2009 would be used to address questions raised by the group and to ensure that nuclear testing of any new warhead would not be necessary, D’Agostino said yesterday. “We’re not playing any games with money here or money there. These are resources focused on that part of the question Congress thinks it’s important to address, and, quite frankly, the department thinks it’s important to address.”
Congress last year applied its budgetary brakes to the program, demanding that the administration better define its vision for the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent — how many weapons it needs and for what purposes — before moving further down a path to developing a new warhead. Lawmakers did set aside $15 million for “advanced certification” work to ensure that if any new warhead were produced it could be placed into the U.S. stockpile without undergoing a nuclear test.
As the budget puts it, the money sought for fiscal 2009 is needed to “proceed with the maturation of Reliable Replacement Warhead design concepts.”
Some fiscal 2009 funding, if realized, would go toward developing more advanced surety technologies to ensure a stolen nuclear weapon would be useless in the hands of a terrorist group. In projected budget figures included for fiscal 2010 through 2013 the RRW program receives the same $10 million figure each year.
“It looks alive and well,” Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said of the new warhead design. “RRW and RRW technology remains the core of NNSA future year programs. This is the core of where they want to go. The entire budget oozes with the sense that the [nuclear warhead] life extension program is not where they want to go.”
For nuclear weapons incident response, the proposed fiscal 2009 budget is set at $222 million, which is an increase of nearly 40 percent, although some of that increase represents a reallocation of funds.
The lion’s share of that funding, nearly $160 million, would provide for collaborative efforts with the Homeland Security Department and the intelligence community to study “improvised nuclear device concepts,” according to the budget summary.
“We thought it was important to focus our resources in one area in something we thought was increasingly important, i.e. nuclear counterterrorism,” D’Agostino said. “What we want to do is make sure we understand what type of potential devices could exist out there and how we would go about creating the tools to defeat these devices.”
The administrator said he expects more nonproliferation-related activities as well as support of intelligence community nonproliferation efforts work to take place at the Nevada Test Site. “That work is going to increase over the next couple of years,” D’Agostino said.
Work would focus on both forensics, the ability to determine the origin of nuclear material before or after a nuclear explosion, and what officials call “stabilization,” the ability to render a nuclear device inert while technical experts respond (see GSN Feb. 9, 2007).
The fiscal 2009 budget also provides for a continued reduction in the size of weapons complex by about 9 million square feet, about seven Pentagon’s worth of space. The complex, now housed at eight sites around the country, would employ up to 30 percent fewer workers and hundreds of fewer buildings while increasing the pace of weapons dismantlement, according to the administration plan.
“We’re calling for the continued consolidation of capabilities and materials that will continue to reduce the overall footprint of the weapons facility in line with the president’s goal of reducing the stockpile to about a quarter of its size at the end of the Cold War,” Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said.