"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement"
July 1, 2020
New Nuclear Designs, New Questions
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Wade Boese

Recent scientific studies have concluded that a core element of most U.S. nuclear warheads will last decades longer than previously predicted. Still, government officials and a recent Pentagon task force say the U.S. nuclear stockpile and production complex are outdated and must be revamped.

At the core of every U.S. nuclear weapon is a plutonium pit that initiates the nuclear explosion process. Weapons engineers have worried that, as plutonium ages, it might degrade a warhead’s performance. But scientists at the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national nuclear laboratories recently determined that most plutonium primaries have minimum life spans of at least 85 years, compared with earlier estimates of up to 60 years.

After reviewing these studies, the independent JASON group reported in late November 2006 that “no evidence” suggests that plutonium aging might be “detrimental” to the U.S. nuclear arsenal “on timescales of a century or less.” Initially formed in 1960 by Manhattan Project participants, JASON is comprised of scientists who advise the government.

Some have seized on the plutonium-aging findings as a reason to slow or halt a Bush administration plan to build a new type of warhead, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). One congressional staffer familiar with the initiative told Arms Control Today that the studies “take the urgency out of rushing forward with [the] RRW [program].”

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which manages the nuclear weapons enterprise, and other supporters of the RRW program say such reactions are misguided. They contend the new concept was not predicated on concerns about plutonium aging but on enhancing safety, security, maintenance, and ease of production of U.S. nuclear arms.

RRW proponents argue that existing warhead designs are unnecessarily risky in seeking to maximize explosive power in the smallest package possible. In addition, current warheads contain components and materials that are difficult to replace or dangerous, such as beryllium. By contrast, RRW supporters say that the new warhead could be made larger to diminish risks. It could also be made more simply and without some hazardous elements, making warheads easier to manufacture and refurbish.

But an exact RRW configuration has yet to be identified. Two teams from the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore laboratories have competing designs that are being reviewed by the Nuclear Weapons Council, which is made up of officials from NNSA and the Pentagon.

RRW critics worry that once a design is chosen, there will be pressure to eventually test it before incorporating it into the military arsenal. The United States enacted a nuclear testing moratorium in 1992 and has since verified that its existing weapons remain safe and reliable through an intensive surveillance and maintenance program known as Stockpile Stewardship. The United States is also a signatory to the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty outlawing nuclear tests, although the Senate rejected ratification of the measure in 1999 and the Bush administration opposes the accord.

NNSA contends the RRW program will rely on past testing knowledge and design work so RRW testing will not be necessary. Congress has made avoiding a resumption of nuclear testing a high priority.

Lawmakers also have mandated that the RRW program should only replicate existing capabilities and not result in warheads with new capabilities or optimized for new missions. Nonetheless, NNSA readily admits that if the first RRW design proves feasible, the general approach could facilitate new types of warheads.

In a long-range plan, referred to as Complex 2030, NNSA envisions the RRW program as leading to an overhaul of the nuclear complex into a consolidated and more “responsive” enterprise. If realized, this revamped complex is supposed to improve the ability to produce “new or adapted warheads in the event of new military requirements,” according to an October 2006 NNSA report.

The thinking is that, because an RRW model will be much simpler to produce, the complex can make warheads faster. Hence, if a technical problem arises in an existing design or a new threat emerges, the complex can quickly crank out new arms to address either scenario. RRW proponents maintain this enhanced production capability will shrink the overall arsenal by diminishing the requirement to store thousands of reserve warheads.

An essential component of this projected complex is a new plutonium pit production center to make up to 125 pits annually. NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Thomas D’Agostino told reporters Oct. 19 that the center would enable NNSA to “essentially turn over [the] Cold War stockpile.” Congress has denied funding to a previous administration proposal to construct a plant with a top annual throughput of 450 pits.

The congressional staffer said that both the RRW program and Complex 2030 are akin to a “cart before the horse situation” because they are being pushed without “rationales to support them.” He contended that no reason exists for creating an “aggressive weapons production complex” and the current stockpile is sufficient for deterring threats to U.S. security.

A task force of the Defense Science Board, however, argued differently in an unclassified December 2006 report on U.S. nuclear capabilities. The board is an advisory group to the secretary of defense, and this particular task force was co-chaired by John Foster, a former director of Lawrence Livermore, and retired General Larry Welch, a former Air Force chief of staff.

The task force warned that the existing arsenal and complex are not appropriate for current and future threats. It also cautioned that reductions beyond current plans to lower deployed strategic forces to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads and nearly halve the entire arsenal of approximately 10,000 warheads by 2012 should be “reversible” in case relations sour with China or Russia. All told, “the current organization, management, and programs do not provide for a nuclear weapons enterprise capable of meeting the nation’s future needs,” the report states.

As part of the remedy, the task force endorsed the RRW program as a “catalyst” for transforming the complex. The group urged current government officials to show more leadership in making a public case for “weapons with greater margins of performance, safety, and security.”

Despite its high-profile nature and the ambitious plans pegged to it, the RRW program has been a relatively small budget item. In the program’s first two years of funding, lawmakers provided it with $9 million and $25 million.

Although both chambers of Congress last year separately approved at least a doubling of RRW funds for the current fiscal year, a consolidated appropriations bill for the nuclear weapons complex, including the RRW program, was never passed. The new Congress, staffers say, will likely pass a continuing resolution that will provide the RRW program with $25 million, the same amount the program received in fiscal year 2006, to cover activities through Sept. 30.

Many expect President George W. Bush to request a funding boost from Congress for the RRW program in February when he unveils his proposed budget for fiscal year 2008. But a congressional staffer inclined to support the new warhead warned in an Arms Control Today interview that lawmakers “certainly reserve the right to end the program if it goes in the wrong direction.”