A recent independent scientific review questions U.S. plans to design the next generation of nuclear weapons without resuming underground testing. The report was prepared by JASON, a group of scientists who regularly advise the government on nuclear defense matters.
The report examines the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has touted as necessary to ensure the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal into the future. A more "reliable" design, officials have said, could lead to a reduction in U.S. stockpiles. The current administration hopes to put the design, based on work carried out at both Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories, into production as soon as 2012.
However, this recent report questions NNSA's ability to certify RRW without resumption of nuclear testing. The JASON report states, "the certification plan presented needs further development," suggesting that NNSA's proposed certification plan might lead to the development of a warhead that could not be certified without testing. They continued by stating that this core reason for the RRW program "is not yet assured." In order to certify the new designs, "new experiments, enhanced computational tools and improved scientific understanding of the connection of results from such experiments and simulations to the existing test data" would be necessary.
In addition, the report recommended that, "proven manufacturing processes be maintained as contingency." Eliminating old, expensive production lines is a large part of NNSA’s rationale for RRW. If that can't be done, the program may lose congressional support. Already, the U.S. House of Representatives has zeroed out RRW funding for 2008.
NNSA has justified the program by stating that the current stockpile is aging and will not be certifiable. However, a past JASON study contradicted NNSA's questioning of the current stockpile, finding that these already certified and tested designs would remain reliable for 100 years or more.
Reactions to the recent report vary; NNSA and other RRW supporters believe that the report calls for the enhanced scientific work already planned for the next phase of the project. NNSA Administrator, Thomas D'Agostino, said, "I am pleased that the JASON panel feels that we are on the right track.”
However, citizen groups disagree, asserting that this program will result in weapons less reliable than those in the current stockpile.
Scott Kovac, of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said, "The overwhelming reliance on computer simulations for certification is a problem that RRW will not be able to overcome. NNSA must not replace the existing stockpile, which is certified as safe and reliable every year and is updated with life extension programs. We must work to reduce our existing stockpile, not start programs for new nukes."
Nuclear testing has already harmed people around the world, exposing them to significant amounts of long lived radioactive fall out. In part due to public opposition, as well as the international impacts, the U.S. has maintained a moratorium on full scale nuclear testing since 1992. It has signed, but not ratified, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
For more information visit the Nuclear Watch New Mexico website: nukewatch.org.