New Nuclear Weapons Program To Continue

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 2, 2006

The Nuclear Weapons Council, made up of senior Defense Department and National Nuclear Security Administration officials, said yesterday that they plan to continue developing a new nuclear weapons program even though recent studies suggested that existing stockpiles are in better condition than had been thought.

The announcement comes just two days after the release of studies by the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories showing that plutonium triggers in currently stockpiled weapons will remain reliable for 90 to 100 years.

A major reason for starting the new weapons program -- known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) -- was the belief that highly radioactive plutonium would degrade so much within 45 years that it could affect the reliability of the weapons in the current stockpile, many of which were built in the late 1960s.

The Nuclear Weapons Council determined that competing designs submitted by both national labs could result in reliable warheads "without underground testing," a key requirement of the program. The council members are expected to choose one of the two designs in the next few weeks and to develop cost estimates. Moving to the next phase of warhead development will require the approval of Congress, which will be controlled by Democrats next year.

Some members of Congress have said the plutonium studies raised questions about the need for the RRW program. Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), considered the father of the RRW program, said yesterday that, based on the plutonium studies, "they should take a breath because there are lots of demand for money." He added: "Congress is not going to be as robust about this though there is a need to have some scientific work done."

Yesterday, Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, said it may be time to review not only the RRW program but also the Bush administration's 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which established the underlying need for nuclear weapons over the next 20 years.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) yesterday hailed the council decision to proceed with RRW, saying it could lead to "a weapon that is safer to store and defend, more reliable, and less costly to manufacture and maintain." Domenici, whose state is home to the Los Alamos laboratory, is currently chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that handles funds for the NNSA.

Robert W. Nelson, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that based on the recently released plutonium studies, the submarine-launched warhead up for replacement under the RRW program, the W-76, has a minimum age for reliability of about 85 years. Production of the W-76, the warhead for the Trident I and Trident II sub-launched missiles, began in 1978 and ended in 1987, during which time about 3,000 were turned out. The Trident I can carry up to eight warheads, the Trident II up to 14.

The Bush NPR contemplated reducing deployed warheads, then totaling about 3,800, to a level of 1,700 to 2,200 by 2012. At the same time there would be a non-deployed stockpile of 2,000 to 3,000 more weapons and a capability to resume underground testing and production of new warheads within a reasonable time. The RRW program envisions the initial production of new warheads almost 20 years from now.

Meanwhile, an ongoing program to refurbish the nonnuclear components in currently stockpiled warheads and bombs will continue, giving them an estimated 20 to 30 years of additional reliability.

Administrator Linton F. Brooks of the National Nuclear Security Administration described the RRW program yesterday as providing "the tools we need to build on the president's vision of maintaining the smallest nuclear stockpile that is consistent with national security requirements."

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