Nuclear Officials Seek Approval for Warhead

Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.) will hold a hearing on the Reliable Replacement Warhead program.
Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.) will hold a hearing on the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. (By Ray Lustig -- The Washington Post)
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Officials of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the nuclear weapons complex, said yesterday that they hope to receive administration and congressional authorization by the end of 2008 for the development and production of a warhead that could be deployed on submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The NNSA requested $88 million in the fiscal 2008 Energy Department budget -- up from $27 million this year -- to complete detailed planning with the Navy based on a design produced in December by the nation's two nuclear weapons laboratories. The new funds would support design concept testing and could lead to production of the warhead for the Navy's D5 missile, 24 of which are carried on each U.S. Trident submarine.

A key aspect of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program is that the warhead could be certified to enter the U.S. nuclear stockpile without testing, acting NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino and other officials said during a session with reporters.

U.S. moves to develop a new warhead come as the Bush administration is attempting to stop Iran and North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and trying to keep other countries, such as India and Pakistan, from expanding their stockpiles.

Last month, former secretaries of state Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz, former defense secretary William Perry and former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) called for the Bush administration to take the leadership in reversing reliance on nuclear weapons as a step toward preventing proliferation. In a Jan. 6 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, the four called for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, taking nuclear weapons off alert, further reducing the number of nuclear forces and halting production of fissile materials.

Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Federation of American Scientists' nuclear information project, said yesterday that as a result of the op-ed piece, "There are a lot of new groups in Washington looking at what really low numbers [of U.S. warheads] would look like."

Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said yesterday that she would hold a hearing next month on the RRW program to review the new design and to determine if it meets military needs and whether it would lead to a smaller and more reliable stockpile with no testing, a smaller nuclear production complex and increased dismantling of older warheads.

"There are significant questions in Congress about how all this holds together," Tauscher said.

The NNSA officials said that in the past, the nuclear weapons labs held underground nuclear tests at this stage in the development of a new warhead. But they said the new designs, by the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, could be certified without testing. Meanwhile, there needs to be detailed planning with the Navy before the NNSA could proceed to the engineering phase.

The warhead is being built to fit into the Mark V reentry vehicle used on the D5, which is commonly known as the Trident II missile. The joint decision last year by the Energy and Defense departments was to try to come up with a warhead that could be used on Navy and Air Force missiles.

NNSA officials said yesterday that production of the new warhead would allow for the Bush administration's plan to reduce the number of deployed nuclear warheads from about 6,000 today to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012, and also to lower the number in ready reserve. Critics of the Bush plan, which was set out in the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, have claimed that far fewer numbers of nuclear warheads will be needed in the future because of the accuracy of precision-guided conventional weapons.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company