Jun 27, 2008

NNSA Plan Addresses Science Panel’s Concerns About Producing Reliable Nuclear Weapon Cores

By Elaine M. Grossman
Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration has offered new details about how it would produce new nuclear weapon cores — or recycle existing ones — for its proposed next-generation Reliable Replacement Warhead (see GSN, Oct. 1, 2007).

The information is included in a new plan addressing concerns from a panel of experts, voiced last year, about establishing the reliability of a new nuclear weapon absent explosive testing.

The White House has proposed building the Reliable Replacement Warhead as a safer, more reliable and affordable nuclear weapon than those currently in the stockpile. Its advocates say the new weapon could be produced and maintained without explosive testing, a feature that many lawmakers demand but one that might be technically daunting to achieve.

The National Nuclear Security Administration submitted the 11-page executive summary of its “Advanced Certification” program plan to key congressional committees last month. The document outlines both existing and new efforts dedicated to increasing confidence that the next-generation Reliable Replacement Warhead would function as expected.

The document responds point-by-point to the 2007 recommendations issued by the JASON group, a panel of scientists often tapped by the national security and intelligence communities to review technical issues. The nuclear agency, a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department, in its report accepted all of the panel’s recommendations and detailed several steps it is taking to implement them.

One concern the JASON panel raised was that any slight changes in manufacturing the first RRW design — compared to the production of older warheads with proven designs — could mean the difference between the new warhead firing or misfiring, if ever used in combat.

“This will require additional experiments and computer simulations beyond those presented in the certification plan,” the group said, referring to the nuclear agency’s initial concepts for verifying the new warhead’s reliability.

One area of particular worry for the panel related to manufacturing pits, the core of a nuclear weapon. The scientists questioned how the U.S. national laboratories could reliably predict whether these complex components could actually produce an explosion, in cases where a pit either was recycled from a dismantled weapon or manufactured for the new warhead.

The NNSA plan offers some examples of where it plans to explore “alternate methodologies” to build and certify reliable pits:

—Sensitivity to chemistry: The current approach to building pits holds plutonium impurities to a bare minimum to boost reliability. However, the production processes to remove impurities “are labor intensive and generate an expensive waste stream,” according to the report. So the agency would attempt to determine if more impurities could be tolerated. “Efforts to better define primary performance sensitivity to the presence of impurities could result in improved ease of certification if higher contaminant levels are allowed,” the NNSA program officials stated.

—Inspection requirements: Similarly, current inspection techniques can be expensive and challenging. “Preliminary studies have indicated that inspections requiring fewer data points and using modern techniques could provide adequate confidence,” according to the report.

—Surface specification: Presently, specifications for the exterior surface of finished pits are extremely rigorous, requiring that they are “defect- and anomaly-free,” according to John Broehm, an NNSA spokesman. That makes for a high rejection rate, the report states. Yet, “the uncertainty increases due to these conditions [are] not well defined, making part rejection somewhat arbitrary,” according to the document. The agency proposed taking additional efforts to better define the uncertainties related to finished pits.

“The NNSA report is nothing earth-shattering,” said one House aide familiar with the issue. However, lawmakers intend to continue to monitor advanced certification plans closely in the event they are needed, the staffer added.

The agency plans to spend $20 million in fiscal 2009 on advanced certification activities, increasing to nearly $30 million next year and maintaining a similar level through 2013, according to a chart included in the report.

The fiscal 2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act required the Bush administration to submit the report. Lawmakers sought the report as a means of forcing the nuclear agency to specify how it would address the JASON concerns, according to one aide close to the issue. An additional motivation, this source said, was to help Congress discern what RRW-related activities continue to take place in the absence of substantial funding for the new warhead.

For the coming fiscal year, the House Appropriations Committee this week passed an energy and water bill that zeroes the administration’s RRW request of $10 million for RRW design activities (see GSN, June 26).

“The administration promotes the advantages of a new design offering better surety, better reliability and lower yield,” House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee Chairman Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) said June 17, “but RRW was offered in a vacuum and there was no new strategy behind it.”

[Download the NNSA's Program Plan Outline for Advanced Certification Executive Summary here.]


Anonymous said...

NNSA is a political body staffed with career nuclear military-industry disciples that know no end to the amount of testing and development needed to keep their careers afloat, aka stockpile stewardship reliability and safety assurance program. As for those selected by NNSA to serve in these so-called scientific panels, what a joke! They’re chosen largely because of their political leanings (like U.S. Attorneys are these days), not for their scientific prowess. They're all a bunch of pathological liars, and I wouldn't trust NNSA or its cadre of "advisors" if the Reds were breathing down my neck. We've been lied to too often by these stooges to believe much of anything they say any more. Hopefully Congress can see through the smoke being blown up their collects rears once more by this worthless agency.

Anonymous said...

I don't doubt what the 6/29/08 9:34 PM writer says about the NNSA and their panels. BUT, as far as Congress seeing thru the smoke and fixing things, that is unlikely to happen. However, incompetent and self-serving the NNSA officials might be, they trail Congress by large margins in those categories.

Anonymous said...

I guess this is a required response on the part of NNSA but, will any of this change the status of RRW until the next Administration is in place?

Anonymous said...

9:34 - Huh??? Some of these recommendations have been put forward numerous times before by LANL engineers. Get rid of our bizarre, historical addictions to irreproducible Rocky Flats technology that perhaps served the Cold War well but is unsustainable in a <100-ppy environment.

Please explain why this should be ridiculed?

Anonymous said...

As for those selected by NNSA to serve in these so-called scientific panels, what a joke! They’re chosen largely because of their political leanings (like U.S. Attorneys are these days), not for their scientific prowess.

We see 9:34 demonstrating abject
IGNORANCE of how JASONS are selected.
Perhaps if 9:34 were to research the
issue instead of displaying diarrhea
of the brain.

JASONS are NOT selected by NNSA. See:


"Since JASON's inception, new members
have always been selected by its
existing members. "This selection
process maintains Jason's autonomy,"

Anonymous said...


Plutonium pit plan for N.M. lab faces opposition - AP News, Jun 30th


The market at the heart of this little village is stuffed with locally grown produce. Fat, red radishes - just hours from the field - are so tempting they practically fly out of the display basket next to the cash register.

Nourished by a small river that empties into the nearby Rio Grande, the narrow valley is dotted with farms, orchards and vineyards.

"Almost everybody grows a garden," said Sheri Kotowski, sitting one breezy spring afternoon under an old apple tree behind the market.

Small wonder, then, that Kotowski and others in this canyon southwest of Taos keep a wary eye on their big, mesa-top neighbor, Los Alamos National Laboratory.

They're fretting these days about a U.S. Department of Energy proposal to have the nuclear weapons lab increase its production of plutonium pits, the core of nuclear warheads, from a few each year to as many as 80...

...Joe Martz, project director with the lab's nuclear weapons program, says that would mean a dramatic improvement in safety and security.

"We are still working with many of these materials in World War II vintage buildings," Martz said.

The movement of material would be reduced, as would the number of areas that have to be secured, he said.

And even 80 pits a year is just a fraction of what was produced at Rocky Flats, the Colorado plant that was the federal government's main pit production facility until it was shut in 1989, Martz said.

"There are some that worry we will become a pit factory. Nothing could be further from the truth," he said.

But there has been a barrage of objections - philosophical, political, environmental, fiscal - to the proposal some critics call "the bombplex."...

Anonymous said...

It's obvious the story in the NMxican underlines the fear mongering that Joni Arends and CCNS have been doing up north.
They've got those gullible fools believing that fallout is going to kill them all.
Yeah fallout, and when you consider the fact they're 40-FRACKIN' MILES UPRIVER it makes a whole lot of sense that the Lab is polluting the hell out of Northern New Mexico.

Somebody check the home...some patients are missing.

Anonymous said...

News flash to Dixon residents: almost everyone grows a garden here in Los Alamos, too.

Anonymous said...

"News flash to Dixon residents: almost everyone grows a garden here in Los Alamos, too." (7:04 AM)

And my tomatoes up here on the Hill are really something to see. They must be around 50 lbs. each, thanks to the effects of the invigorating low-level radiation that surrounds the town site. Low level doses of radiation can actually be good for you, go look it up.

I just hope that old grade-B horror movie, "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" is nothing more than silly science fiction.