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Panel Seeks Consensus On U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 16, 2006

A prestigious Defense Department advisory panel has determined there is no national agreement on what the nation needs in the way of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War period.

In a recently released declassified version of a report on U.S. nuclear capabilities completed earlier this year, the Defense Science Board reported that its task force on the subject concluded "there is a need for a national consensus on the nature and role of nuclear weapons, as well as a new approach to sustaining a reliable, safe, secure and credible nuclear stockpile."

The task force found "most Americans agree that as long as actual or potential adversaries possess or actively seek nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, the United States must maintain a deterrent to counter possible threats and support the nation's role as a global power and security partner." Beyond that, however, it found "sharp differences."

William Schneider Jr., the board's chairman, said yesterday that the report "reflects the fact that the post-Cold War environment has changed, but there is no real consensus of what to do with the nuclear posture we were left with that was designed for use against the Soviet Union."

The report, which talks of a "lack of genuine debate" over nuclear weapons in the future, calls on senior administration officials "to engage more directly to articulate the case for nuclear transformation that provides an integrated vision of the role of nuclear weapons . . . and the prospects for further stockpile reductions." Plans call for reducing the stockpile of about 10,000 warheads, of which 6,000 were deployed.

The administration wants Congress to continue funding refurbishment of deployed nuclear weapons and support development and future production of the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a design for which is expected to be finalized within months. In addition, it wants approval for Complex 2030, a costly program for rebuilding the 50-year-old nuclear facilities where the weapons are both assembled and disassembled.

One of the science board's recommendations is that the weapons complex "be capable of producing a predetermined number of RRW-class warheads per year by 2012," the date by which the current level of deployed, older-but-refurbished warheads is to drop to a level of 1,700 to 2,200.

The science board consists of about 40 scientists and other experts who advise on technical issues, acquisition programs and other matters of interest to the Defense Department. The nuclear task force was co-chaired by John Foster, a former head of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who once ran Pentagon research and development, and retired Gen. Larry Welsh, former Air Force chief of staff.

The science board voices concern that one "influential segment of the U.S. population" has what the report describes as an "entrenched set of views" that transforming the stockpile with new warheads "is the wrong way to shape the security environment" because it runs against the U.S. goal of preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Such political opposition has caused "little progress to date in evolving needed U.S. nuclear capabilities to address effectively the more diverse range of potential threats likely to emerge in the 21st century," the report says.

The report has become public as one Democrat, who will be taking over a congressional subcommittee that oversees nuclear weapons programs, has indicated she plans to take a hard look at the program.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who will chair the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces that authorizes the weapons program, said in an interview this week that she plans to study the program and the underlying numbers and rationale established five years ago by the Bush administration's Nuclear Posture Review.

Tauscher, whose district contains two of the nation's nuclear laboratories, opposed earlier administration plans for a new generation of warheads with new capabilities, and helped defeat research on the nuclear "bunker buster."

Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project of the Federation of American Scientists, who first called attention to the science board's report, described it as an effort to "resell" the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review. "I hope when Congress returns in the new year it will hear others than the old gang promoting that program," he said.

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