Lab Chiefs Question JASON Study Summary

Meri Lugo

The unclassified summary of a major study on technical efforts to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile does not present a fully accurate picture of the challenges that the stockpile faces, directors of U.S. national nuclear weapons laboratories said in letters to a key congressman.

In December, Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, solicited comments from the three lab directors on last year’s JASON study of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) warhead Life Extension Programs (LEPs). The NNSA is a separately organized agency within the Department of Energy.

The directors wrote the letters in January; Turner released them in late March.

JASON, an independent panel of prominent scientists, undertook its classified study last year at the request of the strategic forces panel. A declassified executive summary of the JASON findings was released last November and concluded that the “[l]ifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence, by using approaches similar to those employed in LEPs to date.” (See ACT, December 2009.)

In a press statement issued when he released the letters March 25, Turner said, “I welcomed the release of the JASON scientific advisory panel’s review of warhead Life Extension Programs last November. However, I was concerned about the manner in which certain unclassified findings were being interpreted, so I asked the lab directors for their views on the issues addressed in the JASON report.”

“I am releasing these letters to build upon the JASON’s work to further inform the public discussion on U.S. nuclear weapons policy and strategy,” he added.

Two of the letters appeared to share Turner’s skepticism of the unclassified executive summary. “With respect to the JASON report, I agree in general with its findings and recommendations. However, there are certain findings that have been misinterpreted, especially as presented in the unclassified summary,” wrote Michael Anastasio, director of Los Alamos National Laboratory.    The other two letters were written by George Miller, who directs the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Thomas Hunter, head of Sandia National Laboratories.

Responding to JASON’s confidence in the long-term viability of the stockpile as expressed in the unclassified summary, Miller said that, “[i]n the absence of the more complete discussion provided in the classified report,” the JASON findings on that point “understate, in my view, the challenges and risks encountered in ensuring a safe and reliable nuclear force.”

Suggestions that the executive summary is not completely consistent with the full report have followed the summary since its release. NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera said in a November 19 press release that “[w]hile we endorse the [JASON’s] recommendations and consider them well-aligned with NNSA’s long-term stockpile management strategy, certain findings in the unclassified Executive Summary convey a different perspective on key findings when viewed without the context of the full classified report.”

The lab directors underscored the “unknowability” of future problems with the warheads and questioned whether technical breakthroughs at the laboratories would be able to keep pace with stockpile aging. “It cannot be assumed that increasing insight and understanding in the future will necessarily increase confidence in the stockpile; such knowledge is fundamentally unknowable in advance,” Anastasio said.

All three letters did agree with the JASON report on specific findings. For instance, they endorsed the report’s findings that the nuclear weapons complex suffers from a “lack of program stability” and that a “revised surveillance program” of the stockpile is necessary. “The Nuclear Weapons Enterprise must have the foresight to continuously invest in workforce and capabilities that, even if not immediately needed, will be required for future LEPs,” Hunter wrote.

Since the letters were written, the Obama administration has requested $7 billion in its fiscal year 2011 budget for the NNSA “weapons activities” budget to maintain the nuclear stockpile, which includes upgrades to key facilities, ongoing stockpile surveillance, and further warhead life extensions. The request is an almost 10 percent increase from the previous year’s appropriation. (See ACT, March 2010.) Further, the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released April 6, commits an additional $5 billion to stockpile stewardship over the next five years.

In a statement issued April 9 on the NPR, Anastasio, Hunter, and Miller said, “We believe that the approach outlined in the NPR, which excludes further nuclear testing and includes the consideration of the full range of life extension options (refurbishment of existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components from different warheads and replacement of nuclear components based on previously tested designs), provides the necessary technical flexibility to manage the nuclear stockpile into the future with an acceptable level of risk.”