Warhead Initiative Looms Large in NNSA Plans

Wade Boese

The Bush administration is asking lawmakers for more than $6 billion to support U.S. nuclear weapons activities in its fiscal year 2007 budget request. But administration officials are portraying the future of the U.S. nuclear stockpile as hinging on a relatively modest $28 million program to renovate existing warheads, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW).

The weapons request unveiled Feb. 6 con cerns funds for the Department of Energy’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). NNSA maintains the current U.S. arsenal of approximately 10,000 warheads, which is set to be cut in about half by 2012. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)

Absent from the budget request are several weapons initiatives, including a modified nuclear warhead to destroy underground targets, previously opposed by Congress. However, the RRW program could prove contentious because of its ambiguous nature.

The average age of a U.S. nuclear warhead is about 20 years old, and NNSA is charged with making sure that these weapons remain in good working order without nuclear testing, which the United States ceased in 1992. Officials at NNSA and the Los Alamos , Lawrence Livermore, and San dia national nuclear laboratories contend that some existing warhead types are im perfect and difficult to maintain, perhaps leading to a decline in the performance of the arsenal over time.

Under the RRW program, NNSA hopes to design new replacement components for existing warheads without resorting to nuclear explosive testing. If successful, advocates argue, the initiative would lead to warheads that are easier to maintain and more certain of working.

Since testing ended, NNSA has relied on the Stockpile Stewardship Program to conduct subcritical testing, computer simulations and modeling, surveillance, and the refurbishment of non-nuclear components to ensure warheads will work as intended. In his Feb. 16 prepared testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman stated that the program “is working; the stockpile remains safe and reliable.”

But RRW, according to Bodman, could pave the way for deeper reductions of U.S. reserve forces beyond 2012. He explained that, with the combination of RRW and a revamped, or “responsive,” nuclear infra structure, the United States would not need to retain as many warheads because new ones could be churned out fast enough to respond to new threats or to replace war heads with technical problems. “Success in realizing this vision for transformation will enable us to achieve over the long term a smaller stockpile, one that is safer and more secure,” Bodman testified.

But some lawmakers and scientists are wary of RRW. They worry that too many changes might result in radically different warheads requiring nuclear testing to prove that they work. Another concern is that RRW could serve as a pathway to new types of nuclear arms for new missions.

To guard against such possibilities, Congress last November placed restrictions on the fiscal year 2006 funding of $25 million so that “any weapon design work done under the RRW program must stay within the military requirements of the existing deployed stockpile and…the design parameters validated by past nuclear tests.” (See ACT, December 2005.)

Nevertheless, Bodman suggested that RRW might contribute someday to the de velopment of new nuclear warheads. In detailing the Energy Department’s vision for the nuclear weapons complex in 2030, he testified, “The weapons design community that was revitalized by the RRW program will be able to adapt an existing weapon within 18 months and design, develop, and begin production of a new design within 3-4 years of a decision.” In its budget overview, NNSA also noted, “It may be prudent to field replacement warheads that address different needs, are easier and less costly to manufac ture, and are less expensive to maintain than the current designs.”

Weapons designers at Lawrence Liver more and Los Alamos are currently competing to come up with RRW options. They are expected to submit preliminary designs in March 2006, and a final design will be selected in September by NNSA.

NNSA Heeds Congress

In other areas, NNSA has moved to address congressional objections. NNSA dropped from this year’s budget request its previously contentious proposal to modify an existing nuclear weapon to destroy targets buried deeply underground. For the past two years, Congress had denied funding for Energy Department work on this project, the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. (See ACT, December 2005.)

The nuclear agency also shelved for now an initiative to build a new production factory, known as a Modern Pit Facility, for the plutonium cores of nuclear warheads. Weapons officials contend that the United States eventually will have to revive full-scale plutonium pit production to replace aging pits. But Congress zeroed out a request last year for the facility, saying it was not clear how large a plant is needed given the shrinking size of the U.S. arsenal and indications that plutonium might last longer than previously presumed.

In the interim, Bodman testified that, over five years, NNSA would seek to ramp up annual production at Los Alamos from about 10 pits to as many as 40. “This production rate, however, will be insufficient to meet our assessed long-term pit production needs,” the secretary stated. Last year, he said that at least 125 pits per year eventually would need to be manufactured.

NNSA also abandoned another effort in the face of continued congressional opposi tion: a move to lessen the time required to conduct a nuclear test to 18 months. Instead, NNSA appears to have accepted 24 months as the shortest time that it will have for such preparations. The Bush ad ministration says it has no plans to conduct a nuclear test but that the United States should be fully prepared in case one is nec essary.