U.S. Selects Design for New Nuclear Warhead

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 3, 2007

The National Nuclear Security Administration has selected a design from Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories that could become the basis for the first new nuclear warhead produced by the United States in more than 20 years.

The purpose of the new Reliable Replacement Warhead is to provide, beginning in 2012, a new generation of secure nuclear warheads -- initially for submarine-launched missiles -- that would provide a credible deterrent well into the mid-21st century.

"RRW will take advantage of today's science to ensure long-term confidence in the future stockpile" of nuclear warheads, Thomas P. D'Agostino, the NNSA's acting administrator, said yesterday. The Livermore design beat out one submitted by Los Alamos National Laboratory because there was a "higher confidence" that it could be certified without underground nuclear testing, D'Agostino said. He added that the Los Alamos design has some "highly innovative" features that will be developed "in parallel with the Livermore effort."

The design team will work with the Navy over the next 10 months to define a cost schedule and a production plan. The NNSA's 2008 budget includes $88 million for the RRW, though Congress could limit that funding and slow the program.

According to a chart prepared by the NNSA for Congress and made available to The Washington Post, the RRW program "decreases the likelihood of the need for nuclear testing for certification." Another program goal is to build the warheads so that "unauthorized use of the weapon" would be "impossible without re-manufacture," according to NNSA charts.

The new warheads would require an upgrade of the nation's 50-year-old nuclear weapons manufacturing complex, according to the NNSA. The current U.S. stockpile of about 6,000 "legacy" warheads is already being refurbished. Beginning in the early 1990s, as the Cold War ended and a test moratorium between the United States and Soviet Union was reached, the United States halted the development of new warheads and shifted to supervising its stockpile, making sure the deployed warheads remained reliable. At the same time, those no longer needed began to be dismantled.

During the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the Pentagon and the Energy Department planned to put the stockpiles through a life-extension process every 20 to 30 years. The nonnuclear components of the warheads were to be tested and replaced if necessary. With the United States now committed to reducing its deployed warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012, the stockpile five years from now would primarily consist of older warheads -- with fewer than half of them refurbished, according to the NNSA.

The Bush administration's 2001 Nuclear Posture Review called for a study on developing a new generation of nuclear weapons, including a controversial nuclear "bunker buster" and special warheads designed for destroying chemical or biological weapons. Congress did not fund those programs and, instead, redirected the money toward a refurbishment program for existing warheads -- a slow and time-consuming process.

It took almost 15 years to refurbish the W-87 warheads on the Minuteman III ICBMs -- six years to determine what needed replacement and eight more to complete the process, according to NNSA and Pentagon officials. And the W-76 -- the warhead for the Trident submarine-launched ICBM -- has been under study for refurbishment since 1998, but work on modernizing the warheads is just starting.

The NNSA has long said that one goal of the RRW is to "render unauthorized use of weapon impossible," a quote taken from the still-secret National Security Presidential Directive 28, titled "Nuclear Weapons Command, Control, Safety, and Security." The new RRW design includes a "use control" device, which locks the nuclear element of a weapon so it cannot be used should it fall into enemy hands.

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