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U.S. Plans to Modernize Nuclear Arsenal

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 4, 2006

The Bush administration is developing plans to design and deploy refurbished or replacement warheads for the nuclear stockpile, and by 2030 to modernize the production complex so that, if required, it could produce new generations of weapons with different or modified capabilities.

Referring to goals established two years ago, Ambassador Linton F. Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), told the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces Wednesday that "we will revitalize our weapons design community to meet the challenge of being able to adapt an existing weapon within 18 months, and design, develop and begin production of a new design within three to four years of a decision to enter engineering development."

A study by NNSA for restructuring the aging weapons complex, which includes dealing with facilities that dismantle retired weapons, should be sent to Congress this spring, Brooks said. Although there is some updating and modernizing of the present complex, "full infrastructure changes . . . will take a couple of decades," Brooks said.

The first step in the long-range plan is focused around the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program that was approved last year. That program contemplates designing new components for previously tested nuclear packages that would make the resulting bombs and warheads safer and more reliable over the long term than older stockpiled weapons that are being refurbished.

The RRW warheads would create, Brooks said, a "reduced chance we will ever need to resort to nuclear testing." In addition, he said, "Once we demonstrate we can produce warheads on a time scale in which geopolitical threats could emerge, we would no longer need to retain extra warheads to hedge against unexpected geopolitical changes."

Under current plans, the number of deployed U.S. warheads on submarines, missiles and bombers would be reduced to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012. There would be an additional number, said to exceed 2,000, that would remain in a strategic reserve, and it would be the latter that could be further reduced under the RRW program.

However, Brooks told the subcommittee that he believes more funds will be needed to prepare for a new multibillion-dollar facility to produce "pits," plutonium triggers for thermonuclear weapons. There is controversy over how reliable the plutonium pits are as they age because of radioactive decay. Brooks told the panel the current belief is they are reliable for 45 to 60 years, but uncertainties have developed.

A small facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory has been established to build pits, but its capacity will be 30 to 40 pits a year beginning in 2012, which Brooks described as "insufficient to meet our assessed long-term pit production needs" created by the RRW warheads.

Brooks's description of the U.S. plan for nuclear weapons production came one day before President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced their agreement for sharing nuclear technology, while permitting India to continue production of weapons-grade materials at one-third of their reactors. It also came one day after testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee by Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, described how India and other nations are moving forward with their own nuclear programs.

"We believe that India and Pakistan . . . continue expanding and modernizing their nuclear weapon stockpiles," Maples said, adding, "Pakistan has also developed the capability to produce plutonium for potential weapons use."

He also reported that North Korea is continuing to produce plutonium for its nuclear program, and that China "is likely" to increase the number of its nuclear-armed theater and strategic weapons and "has sufficient fissile material to support this growth."

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