By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 4, 2007
The selection of a basic design for what could become a new generation of U.S. nuclear warheads has drawn immediate opposition from some key members of Congress.
The National Nuclear Security Administration announced on Friday that it had selected a design by the California-based Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). It would be the first of a new generation of secure and reliable nuclear warheads initially intended for the Navy's submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Within the next 12 months, a team from Livermore and the Navy is to put together cost estimates and an engineering and production plan that would be presented to Congress next year for approval, according to acting NNSA Administrator Thomas P. D'Agostino.
Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.), the new chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that controls the funds for the nuclear weapons complex, has sharply questioned why a new warhead is needed. Saying the NNSA announcement "puts the cart before the horse," he called on the Bush administration to present a "clear, coherent national policy" to justify the new warhead.
Visclosky said he plans to hold oversight hearings and may seek to slow or eliminate the RRW if the administration does not present a strategy "that defines the future mission, the emerging threats, and the specific U.S. nuclear stockpile necessary to achieve the strategic goals."
The same subcommittee, under the previous chairman, Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), helped eliminate the Bush administration's plan to develop a nuclear "bunker buster" weapon and, instead, initiated a program to upgrade the reliability of the current stockpile of Cold War weapons. The Bush administration turned this into a program to develop a new nuclear warhead.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a longtime opponent of new nuclear weapons, has declared that she is "100 percent opposed" to building the RRW. A member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds the nuclear complex, she said in a statement: "While I appreciate the fact that Lawrence Livermore was selected, this in no way answers my questions about the Reliable Replacement Warhead program."
She questioned how other countries would view the U.S. effort to develop new nuclear weapons at the same time that the United States is pushing Iran, North Korea and other countries to drop nuclear weapons programs. "What worries me is that the minute you begin to put more sophisticated warheads on the existing fleet, you are essentially creating a new nuclear weapon. And it's just a matter of time before other nations do the same thing," she said.
D'Agostino told reporters on Friday that the RRW "is not about starting a new nuclear arms race." He said the program would use a warhead design that was tested in the 1980s but package it with new features, such as insensitive high explosives less liable to explode by accident, as well as locking devices that would prevent the warhead from being used if it fell into the hands of terrorists.
There is congressional support for the warhead development. Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, which also has jurisdiction over the weapons program, said she is "encouraged" by the NNSA decision. But she added that it "is only an early step in what will be a long evaluation process."
With the design going to Livermore, located in her district, Tauscher said the NNSA and the Pentagon "appear to have followed Congress's clear directions." She said her subcommittee's first hearings on the RRW will take place this week.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico, home of Los Alamos National Laboratory, whose design lost out to Livermore's, said: "The important thing is that we're taking a step forward with the RRW to transform and reduce our stockpile, improve security and reliability, and lower the life-cycle cost." He hinted that this may only be the first of a series of RRWs, saying, "One system is not equivalent to a transformation, and we need to move on a second design competition."
Although Livermore's warhead is designed to be carried by a Navy intercontinental ballistic missile, the NNSA and the Pentagon are about to begin a study to determine what elements are needed for an RRW that would be carried by an Air Force ICBM.