Yesterday, Congressman Michael Turner, ranking Republican member on the House Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, released three letters from the directors of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratory written at his request on their views on the unclassified executive summary of December 2009 report of the JASON group of independent scientific experts on the stockpile stewardship program. (Click here for the summary of the report.)
None of the lab directors’ letters contradict the fundamental finding of the unclassified JASON report executive summary, which states that “the lifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades with no anticipated loss of confidence by using approaches similar to those employed in LEPs to date.”
In their letters, the lab directors do not suggest that new-design replacement warhead designs or a resumption of nuclear testing are necessary to maintain stockpile confidence and reliability and acknowledge that warhead refurbishment and replacement comprise a flexible and comprehensive strategy for maintaining "the nuclear explosive package of existing warheads."
Rather, the lab directors seem to agree with the findings in the classified version of the full JASON study that say that "refurbishment" and "reuse" options can maintain the reliability of the existing warheads through the existing Life Extension Programs. But they note that the classified full report underscores the potential value of "replacing" certain non-nuclear components (such as the conventional high explosives in the warhead primaries with insensitive high explosives) in order to achieve some improvements in safety and security, or pursuing new warhead designs that incorporated "instrinsic surety systems in the entire stockpile to better meet today's security challenges."
In doing so, the three letters betray the lab directors underlying institutional motivation to secure additional resources for operations at each of the national laboratories, and the flexibility and funding to address any future issues through a wider range of stockpile stewardship strategies.
However, since the letters were written (in January) the Obama administration proposed a ten percent increase in the nuclear weapons activities budget for FY 2011 for the National Nuclear Security Administration and the national weapons labs, which should remove any doubts that whether the labs have sufficient funding to address the program "risks" and "challenges" they cite in their letters. The budget increase amounts to more than $7 billion for stockpile surveillance and warhead life extension programs, including additional monies for enhancing the confidence in the annual certification of the nuclear stockpile, and long-term projects to upgrade laboratory facilities. The Obama administration has also signaled that over the next 5 years it will seek an additional $5 billion for the program.
The bottom line remains that nuclear testing is not needed to maintain the reliability of the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal and the nuclear weapons labs have more than enough resources and technical capability to maintain the existing nuclear arsenal.