Nuclear Warhead Design Hits Snag

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007

An independent scientific advisory group, tasked by the federal government at the direction of Congress to review the administration's plan for a new generation of nuclear warheads, has questioned whether it can go ahead without further laboratory work.

The study, performed by the "Jasons," a group of scientists who regularly advise the government on nuclear defense matters, concluded that the first design of a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW1) "needs further development" before it can be certified as reliable enough to go into the U.S. weapons stockpile without underground nuclear testing.

In a declassified executive summary of the Jason report, the group recommended that, for the RRW1 design to be certified, "additional experiments and analyses are needed" to explore possible failures of the nuclear warhead and the new manufacturing processes contemplated for building it.

The design was created by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and based on an earlier nuclear device that was subjected to an underground nuclear test. The Jason study found that additional investigation and laboratory simulations are needed to ensure a connection between the RRW1 design and the nuclear explosive test data from the earlier device.

In addition, it concluded that "substantial work" remains to be done on the security mechanisms planned to prevent the warhead's use should it fall into terrorist hands. As the summary notes, such security mechanisms are a "high priority of the RRW program."

The Jason finding will reinforce steps already taken by the Democratic-led Congress to reduce fiscal 2008 funding for the program and thus prevent the Bush administration's plan to seek a vote next year to move on production of the new warheads.

The report did not say that RRW1 would never meet the tests that the Jason group set; it said only that, absent underground testing, "a continued non-nuclear experimental basis will be required for certification of any new design."

To that end, the Jason panel suggested that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) recommend a new peer review program to replace the annual report that certifies whether a nuclear stockpile is still reliable. The group is proposing independent individuals, not heads of nuclear laboratories or weapons designers, be involved in the process.

Chairman Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.) and Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), the two senior members of the House Appropriations subcommittee that controls funding for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, said the Jason report has "raised serious questions that must be addressed before proceeding with the RRW." Only when NNSA "has completed the work recommended by the Jason report can the nation appropriately consider what role an RRW might play as a 21st-century nuclear deterrent."

Ironically, the NNSA administrator, Thomas P. D'Agostino, who is the prime supporter of the RRW program, looked at the Jason report differently. He said he was "pleased that the Jason panel feels that we are on the right track" and added that he would "embrace the ideas of continued study and peer review."

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