Jun 27, 2008
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.]