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The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Weapons Complex and the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW)
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Transcript by:
Federal News Service
Washington, D.C.


DARYL KIMBALL: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to one of the best restaurants in Washington and sometimes the location for Arms Control Association press briefings. I think the last time I was here was in 1998. It’s as cozy and small as ever, so thanks for squeezing in.

Good morning. My name is Daryl Kimball. I’m the executive director of the Arms Control Association. Many of you are very familiar with ACA, but for those of you who may not be, we’re a non-profit, non-partisan research and public education organization devoted to reducing the threats of nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional weapons and to promoting practical strategies to deal with these weapons dangers. We also publish the monthly journal, Arms Control Today.

This morning’s briefing is going to focus on two key issues facing U.S. nuclear weapons policy: one, the future of the nuclear weapons complex, and two, the proposal for designing and producing the first new nuclear warhead design in some two decades, the so-called reliable replacement warhead or RRW as you’ll hear us say.

Earlier this year, the Bush Administration requested $88.8 million for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and $30 million for the Department of Defense mainly for design related work for the RRW for fiscal year 2008. According to the managers at NNSA, the program is supposed to lead to safer warheads that are more reliable and easier and less expensive to maintain than the existing stockpile warheads. They also assert that the new warheads will facilitate reductions in the United States non-deployed reserve nuclear stockpile. 

Within the next month or so, the new Congress will act on the administration’s request. Already there have been several hearings in the appropriations and authorizing committees. As they continue to look at this issue, we believe that they must very carefully and critically examine the NNSA’s claims about the new warhead program because as you’ll hear from our two panelists this morning, their rationale does not seem to add up.

I’m just going to outline some of the key issues and then I’ll turn to our speakers who are going to provide greater detail on each of these questions. The first fundamental issue is:  Are new replacement warheads even needed? For more than a decade, the multi-billion dollar Stockpile Stewardship Program has successfully maintained the existing U.S. arsenal in the absence of testing and recent findings regarding the aging of plutonium in warheads cores—I should say the primaries—suggest that U.S. nuclear weapons will have minimum lifetimes of 85 years; about twice as long as previous estimates. So if the reliability of the United States’ nuclear stockpile can be maintained without testing indefinitely by avoiding unnecessary alterations during refurbishments, new replacement warheads are clearly a solution in search of a problem.

Second, would new warheads and the associated weapons complex requirements be more or less costly? If the National Nuclear Security Administration continues to need to refurbish existing warhead types until their replacements are built, which won’t be apparently until the year 2020 or so, the pursuit of RRW could produce higher, not lower, costs, than the NNSA’s current $6.5 billion annual budget.

Third, could new warheads be built without nuclear explosive proof testing? Maybe not. As our panelists will explain, confidence in the reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile could erode if warhead designs are changed to those that are not validated by past testing. I would note that in a hearing yesterday in the Senate, acting NNSA director Tom D’Agostino was asked what would happen if doubts about new design warheads emerged. He said—I’m paraphrasing, I haven’t seen the transcript—that he would not recommend going forward with the RRW if it could not be certified without nuclear explosive testing; but he said he could not guarantee that testing would not be needed when the RRW is several decades old. 

Fourth, how would new warhead designs and production affect U.S. nonproliferation goals in other areas? Already the failure of the United States and the other declared nuclear-weapon states to fulfill their nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) commitments have already made it more difficult to win support for the necessary changes and reforms to the nonproliferation system that are necessary to deal with today’s difficult challenges. If Congress gives a green light to the administration’s new warhead proposal, I and our panelists would find it difficult to imagine how our work to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons worldwide would not be more complicated.

So looking at the answers to these fundamental questions, we think Congress also needs to reexamine the role of nuclear weapons in the decades ahead and consider how U.S. nuclear weapons policies will affect the urgent need to reduce global nonproliferation threats and risks around the world. One of our panelists, Dr. Sid Drell, and one of his colleagues, Jim Goodby, put together an excellent report that the Arms Control Association published in 2005. Also, as you all know, in January, several leading national security figures published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that calls for specific steps to move toward fulfillment of the NPT Article VI obligations on disarmament.

Now, to address these questions and provide what I hope are some very good answers, as well as present some alternative proposals, we have two of the leading figures in the field today. First, we’re going to hear from Dr. Sidney Drell who is professor of physics emeritus at Stanford University’s Linear Accelerator Center and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. He’s been a long time technical advisor to the U.S. government. He previously served on the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and Science Advisory Committee and has recently published his collected works in a nice volume which I would recommend to you.

We’ll also hear from Dr. Steve Fetter who is dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. He’s a fellow at the American Physical Society and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He’s previously served as special assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for international security policy. He’s served on several National Academy of Sciences’ committees. He’s also a board member of the Arms Control Association. 

After we hear from them, we’ll take questions from the floor from you and have a robust question and answer session. Thank you for being here.

SIDNEY DRELL: Thank you for inviting me. I’m glad to be here this morning and talk about these issues. Let me just start by going right straight to the RRW program which has two parts, as Daryl said. One is to refurbish or replenish—transform is the word—the stockpile of warheads. The other is to replenish or refurbish the infrastructure of [U.S. nuclear] plants and facilities. Let me start with that one first; I think that’s not controversial.

The infrastructure of our weapons program is old. Parts of it date back to World War II and parts of it, when you go through it, make you think you’re somewhere in the middle of Siberia, quite frankly, when you look at the condition. As long as we have nuclear weapons, I think it is quite important for this country to be able to say that it can maintain them economically, environmentally-friendly safe and reliable. There are things we have to do to bring the older parts of the infrastructure up to snuff. 

The point I want to make on this is that what complex we need for the future really depends very much upon what is our nuclear weapons policy for the future. Under the [May 2002] Treaty of Moscow [or SORT], we will have in 2012 between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads deployed. We now have approximately—the number is never given precisely—about 5,000 with another 3,000 or so in the reserve force. And you have to ask yourself, what is the purpose? What are all these weapons for? If we have to maintain 5,000 warheads, the complex is going to be a very different structure than if, for example, we were to decide that our weapons requirements in the future are, say 500, not 5,000.

So in going ahead with the infrastructure or the complex updating, we have to have a clear policy of where we’re going. We don’t have that. I don’t know what our weapons are for, particularly at the level of 5,000. I remember when Presidents Putin and Bush met in Moscow five years ago; they said all sorts of good things. I have words here from their agreement: “The United States and Russia have overcome the legacy of the Cold War; neither country regards the other as an enemy or a threat.” 

They went on to emphasize that we are allies working together against the spread of nuclear weapons in what they call a new strategic relationship that is cooperative rather than adversarial. Clearly, those words are very welcome, but they have a grave implication. To the extent where we stand today and where we’re going, it’s not clear. But certainly before we can design the complex, we have to know what we’re designing it for.

If I tell you that the warheads have lives of 50 years—with our Stockpile Stewardship Program, we’re seeing that there are no significant signs of aging—and I tell you that I need a 5,000 warhead stockpile, that means on the average I’m going to have to make 5,000 over 50 years: that’s 100 a year.

On the other hand, if I tell you that we’re going to have a 500 warhead stockpile and they live 100 years—we now have indications of longer warhead lifetimes; one factor being what we know about the aging of plutonium and its impact on the pit—we may need to only make five weapons a year. 

So we have a very fundamental challenge that Congress has to address before we know how to go on with bringing up the complex, the infrastructure, up to modern standards of safety and efficiency. As I said, as long as we have weapons, we have an obligation to see that they are reliable and safe and effective. 

The more controversial part of the program has to do with the redesign of warheads. Here, the question and challenge have been can we make warheads that are safer, live longer, more reliable, and have better use control? Use control means can we make it more difficult for a bad guy who gets his hand on our warheads to use them against us. Now, these are valid questions to ask. But we should understand the answer, or crucial parts of the answer, before we go ahead with implementing something.

I don’t believe that we know the answer to those questions. The challenge is a very daunting one because the legislation in Congress, creating the RRW, says that if the program is to proceed that it’s supposed to save money, and it’s supposed to not develop new weapons for new military missions. This latter issue was argued out over the last few years in the bunker buster debate and the debate about new concepts, such as very low yield, more usable weapons, particularly to try and sanitize biological agents.

The legislation also says the RRW is to be done without testing. That obviously was put in there by a Congress concerned about the impact of renewed testing on our nonproliferation goals and the judgment that the security of the United States is better served by trying to preserve the nonproliferation regime and strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. So they want to address the new challenges coming from the spread of technology rather than resuming testing, as well as designing new weapons.

I think the question that has been put in the RRW is a question worth trying to answer. I don’t believe we know the answer yet. Therefore, that says to me how we should proceed as Congress debates the RRW is first of all develop a strong consensus on a technical basis with independent input coming from groups that have been used traditionally in the past: STRATCOM has its advisory group; the Defense Department has its advisory group; JASON has operated pretty well as an independent group. Can we achieve the goal of better use control, longer lifetime, et cetera, without resumption of testing? So the first step is to get a technical consensus on that and I think that is where the program stands right now; that’s where it should stand before we commit ourselves to go ahead with multiple designs cutting metal or whatnot. 

I think the second point to take into account in addressing the RRW weapons design program is to recognize that we have had now for over the last decade a very vigorous and multi-faceted science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program and life extension program. I believe it is fair to say—it’s accurate to say—that there are no significant signs of aging in the present stockpile. That doesn’t mean there will be no problems in the future. I certainly believe we must have a strong program that keeps us aware of what might develop that we don’t anticipate. If there are any warning bells ringing, we’ll hear them and be able to respond. 

But at the moment, I don’t believe there is any significant evidence of aging. This very valuable Stockpile Stewardship Program and life extension program has led to the annual certification of our weapons for the past 11 years. I think that program’s budget should not be savaged in order to go pushing ahead with RRW1 or RRW2 at this point. So I think this is important: get an answer to what we can do, a technical answer, without testing, and do not dismember or savage a program that has been very successful.

Of course, the third thing—to get into a more arms control realm—is how we proceed with what we’re trying to do—making the stockpile and the complex safer or if we find that we can make the warheads with better use control without testing—in a way that explains exactly what we’re doing and what we’re not doing because we do have a nonproliferation regime that is in trouble right now. 

We have to be worried about what we do. We have to work cooperatively with the other 180 plus nations who have signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to give it more verification teeth. There’s also the Proliferation Security Initiative, the additional protocols, the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, and now the Global Threat Reduction Initiative. We need the support of most of the countries in the world to try and protect a nonproliferation regime which is on the ropes right now, considering what’s going on and considering the spread of technology in the world.

This raises in the minds of some of us—this is what Daryl was referring to and I’ll close with this—the notion that we have to also be looking not just at what we do today to try and keep the nonproliferation regime viable and to strengthen it; we have to look down the road and say, given the spread of technology and the dangers, when are we going to tackle the problem, the real serious problem, of getting rid of these terrible weapons? When are we going to tackle the problem of trying to escape the nuclear deterrence trap—we’ll call it that—which Putin and Bush really said they wanted to escape in the statement of five years ago that I quoted? When do we start addressing that question?

Twenty years ago last October, Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev went to Reykjavik with a vision. By the way, it’s really instructive to read the transcript of what went on; it’s in the archives of Margaret Thatcher, the Ronald Reagan library, etc. They really tried sincerely to get rid of all nuclear weapons. Whatever people may like or dislike about Ronald Reagan, there’s one thing that’s indisputable: he was, I believe, the most profound, sincere nuclear abolitionist who ever lived in the White House. You should read statements that he read over the years before he was president, during and after. One that I like particularly on the abolishment of all nuclear weapons was when he said that he considered nuclear weapons “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization.” And all of you should remember President Eisenhower in his Atoms for Peace speech in 1953 said, “the United States is determined to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma, to devote its entire heart and mind to finding the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”

I think we have to perhaps reach back in a little history and ask ourselves in a deeper way: can we escape the nuclear deterrence trap? Can we work together to try and get the countries of the world to join in and recognize—as far-fetched as that idea may seem today—that the alternative of a world with proliferating nuclear weapons at the hands of terrorists and others is looming? We really have to be serious and not think this is just a fancy. 

We had a meeting out our way last October that led to a piece in The Wall Street Journal—I’m sure most of you people have read that letter—by Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, and Bill Perry, A lot of people ranging from Admiral Crowe to Max Kampelman signed onto it. It said it’s time we take disarmament seriously. We laid out steps, practical steps, to try and get there. 

I hope that that problem begins to get a little more attention and the vision that Gorbachev and Reagan brought to Reykjavik 20 years ago will be rekindled in our thinking and will guide the more immediate actions like what we do and don’t do in the RRW. Thank you.

KIMBALL: Thank you, sir.

STEVE FETTER: Well, I agree with every word that Sid said. I’m tempted to just leave it at that and sit down, but I think Daryl would not be happy with me if I did that. I guess that I would start by asking about the RRW: why now? What’s the rush? 

As Sid said, I think everyone agrees that the Stockpile Stewardship Program and the associated life extension programs have been very successful and that the current nuclear arsenal is reliable, safe, and secure. So RRW doesn’t really respond to a present need or problem.

It responds rather to a hypothetical problem that might occur in the distant future: that it might be difficult to rebuild and maintain the current generation of nuclear warheads. As I’ve heard it described by one NNSA official, LEPs, life extension programs, upon LEPs for warheads might introduce uncertainties that would be difficult to assess and to certify. But if a LEP lasts 25 years then, you see, we’re talking about a problem that might materialize far into the future, perhaps 30 or 50 years into the future.

Because it addresses a problem that might arise so far into the future, I don’t think we can decide whether RRW makes sense without having a correspondingly long-term vision for the future of U.S. nuclear weapons. I think RRW makes most sense if that long-term vision is continuing to maintain a large, highly reliable, highly alert nuclear force, say, 50 or more years in the future. In that case, RRW might be a good option to consider. 

But I think it’s also possible that over this timeframe, our nuclear arsenals might be—I hope would be—greatly reduced, to a few hundred. I believe over this timeframe, a timeframe of 50 years, that it is not unrealistic to seriously consider the prohibition of nuclear weapons all together. I think Sid made an excellent case for that, as well as the op-ed piece that he referred to. That might be in the best overall security interests of the United States, particularly as more and more countries around the world become capable of also building nuclear weapons.

In those scenarios of deep reduction or prohibition, RRW makes far less sense; maybe no sense at all. It would be far cheaper to simply maintain the most reliable of the existing warheads and dismantle the rest.

But I don’t think there is any long-term vision for the U.S. nuclear vision and without that, proceeding with RRW could prove to be, at best, a waste of money or, at worst, it could help to lock us into the option of maintaining a large and highly reliable and highly alert force through the end of this century. But even if that was our long-term vision, a large nuclear force beyond 50 years, it’s not clear to me at least that RRW is the best way to go about that because designing and building a new warhead will inevitably introduce certain risks. For example, questions might arise during the non-nuclear testing or production that could be resolved only with a nuclear test. Now, perhaps we have a statement that if that arose we wouldn’t do a nuclear test, but I’m not so confident.

KIMBALL: He said he wouldn’t recommend.

FETTER: He wouldn’t recommend a nuclear test, right. But that would be a difficult choice to make. You’d be faced with the choice of scrapping the program or breaking what would then be a long-standing nuclear test moratorium to resolve those issues.

Like most other warheads, RRW will have, or could be expected to have, birth defects or reliability problems that would be discovered and corrected soon after the warhead was deployed. No one can say whether the unreliabilities introduced by these birth defects would be greater or smaller than the unreliabilities that would crop up in the existing warheads due to their age.

As Sid said, advocates of the NNSA are also claiming that RRW will improve safety and security and reduce costs. I think these claims are greatly oversold, particularly the claim of saving money. The RRW might be cheaper to produce, but in the near and medium term, we would have to design and build this new warhead while at the same time maintaining the existing stockpile of weapons. We probably also have to do missile flight tests with the new RRW. So any savings that would occur would occur only in the very long term and I don’t know that many of us are very interested in savings that materialize 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 years from now.

Proponents also claim that RRW would improve safety, for example, because it could use insensitive high explosives, IHE, [rather than conventional high explosive]. But the main risk today from the current arsenal comes from the Trident warheads, the W-76 and W-88, which don’t use IHE. But the Navy looked at this issue—I should have looked up when; it was over 10 years ago—and concluded that the use of IHE on Trident wouldn’t significantly improve safety because those warheads are arrayed around a third stage that uses a detonatable class 1.1 propellant. So if that blows up, it doesn’t matter whether the warheads have conventional or insensitive high explosive. 

Proponents also claim that RRW would improve security and save money because they could incorporate the most sophisticated permissive action link technology, safeguards technology. In this regard—I should have looked up the exact quote by him—General Cartwright said that the ideal warhead would be one that you could give to terrorists and they couldn’t do anything with it because these safeguards were so good. I find it very hard to believe that we would reduce our requirements for guns and gates and guards simply because the warheads once stolen would be somewhat less vulnerable to abuse.

Finally, and I think most importantly, RRW is likely to have a negative effect on U.S. and global nonproliferation efforts. I do think these could be minimized if properly handled. I think if RRW was accompanied by ironclad promises to reduce the nuclear stockpile and to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), if the materials from the dismantled warheads were placed under international safeguards, and if we supported a verified ban on the continued production of new weapons grade materials, I think all of these would have a greatly mitigating effect. It might even conceivably be an overall positive for U.S. nonproliferation efforts. But the administration isn’t promising this. Instead, at least in the briefings that I’ve heard—not in public statements, but in the briefings I’ve heard from NNSA officials—they have emphasized the need to exercise and maintain our ability to design and build new nuclear weapons and to catalyze the rebuilding of the nuclear weapon production infrastructure.

Other countries will see RRW in the context of our overall U.S. foreign policy and our nuclear policies, which include, for example, the right to use nuclear weapons for counter-proliferation purposes, including against countries that don’t have nuclear weapons (this appeared in leaked portions of the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review); the pursuit of a nuclear earth-penetrating warhead that was part of that doctrine; open hostility to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; and the refusal to discuss at the 2005 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference any aspect of the 13 Step action plan on nuclear disarmament that had been adopted at the previous review conference. 

So in this overall policy context, I think it’s virtually certain that RRW and Complex 30 would be interpreted by most states with deep suspicion, if not outright hostility. That hostility would impede our efforts to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. Thank you very much. 

KIMBALL: Thank you very much, Sid and Steve, for those very comprehensive remarks. It’s now your turn. We’ll take your questions. I just ask that you speak up. We don’t have a microphone right now. I’ll try to repeat your question so let us know who you are. Does anybody have a question, comment? Yes? Stan Norris.

QUESTION: This seems to be a kind of crucial time right now. The issue is before Congress; they’re in session today. Next week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s RRW report is due and there’s grassroots organizations coming. My question has to do with predicting whether Congress might kill RRW this term or perhaps reduce the funding for it. Yesterday, Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) complained that there was a lack of enthusiasm by the Defense Department and State Department for this and he sent letters to try and get their support. So I’d ask each of you to predict the near term: what’s going to happen in this session of Congress?

DRELL: I’ve never successfully predicted what Congress is going to do.

I think you have to give Congressman David Hobson (R-OH) a lot of credit for this. He helped create RRW after the rejection of both the bunker buster and the low-yield concepts. He really had in mind [improving] the complex and the infrastructure, and I think it was a very good approach. But I believe that’s not the way the program has now come out. I hear very little emphasis on that part of it and everything about RRW-1, which now the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is going to do, and people beginning to gin up for RRW-2. I have great respect for the savvy of people in Congress even if I don’t agree with what they do often; they’re no dopes. I think that they must feel that something is going on here that’s not what they intended. Therefore, if I was a betting man, I wouldn’t put money down that [RRW proponents] are going to have really much success.

I would hope that there will be some success on things that I really do think have to be done in the complex. I’m all in favor of making the weapons both with better use control and safer and doing things like that, but in a sensible way of being quite open in what we do. 

KIMBALL: As Sid said, it’s extremely difficult to predict what Congress is going to do. I can’t speak for Congress. You reporters who are here have got to go talk to the key people on the key committees. But my perception is that, as Sid said, there’s a lot of skepticism among the chairpersons of the key subcommittees about some of the claims made about RRW. I would say that the jury is still out in their minds. There are still questions about the program that NNSA has not yet fully answered: costs, what is the cost? Can this warhead be certified without testing? That’s not clear and may never be predictable. There may not be an answer on that. 

I think Congress also is starting to think more carefully about, well, what is wrong with the existing stockpile? There are a number of members of Congress who just haven’t thought about that issue very carefully. I think that it’s up in the air right now. There’s a lot of skepticism, but I’m not sure exactly where it will lead. 

QUESTION: If I could ask a bit of a follow-up to that. It seems, just from following the debates in the last few weeks on the Hill in the House Appropriations Committee, that Congressmen Hobson and Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.) are really hung up specifically on this question of consolidating all the nuclear materials in the complex to one site. That really seems to be the sort deal-maker or deal-breaker for them. I was wondering, to whichever of the panelists care to respond, do you agree that this one particular issue is so important that it should be the deal-maker or deal-breaker? Do you think that right now it’s standing in for other bigger issues in the complex?

KIMBALL: The question is to what extent is the ability of the NNSA to modernize the complex in a more efficient way a key issue? I think there are several key issues. That’s the whole point of our presentation here. I don’t think that is the one. But what you can see from Hobson is that he has been seeking a weapons complex with a smaller footprint and lower costs. His statements and Visclosky’s statements make it clear that they’re a little disappointed, maybe very disappointed, by the plan that came out last fall, the so-called Complex 30 plan, which NNSA will say has a smaller footprint in terms of square footage. But it does not close any facilities. It still maintains the basic architecture of the weapons complex and it would require a new plutonium facility—a variation on the pit production facility that had been proposed before.

DRELL: It is a big money item, I believe, and therefore it has to be an important component. I go back to the example I gave: If you say you have to make 100 or 125 pits a year, that’s a big deal in terms of building a pit production facility. If you’re going to talk about one that’s going to make a dozen or two a year, you can do that at Los Alamos with money to bring the buildings there up to standard. The fact that it is a big money item also makes it big politically in the sense that it’s jobs in different districts. I would imagine that will be, actually, a large part of the debate even though it may not be the most important in real terms.

QUESTION: Hans-Peter Hinrichsen of the German Embassy. I would like to address the question of urgency. You mentioned that there is no urgency about the RRW, and I think DOE would go along with that. But they are saying there is urgency for the infrastructure: that it is decaying, that it needs new people, and that those people who actually build nuclear weapons are phasing out—we’ll lose their experience; if you want to do something for the future, you must do it now. Would you concur with that view that there is urgency to reconfigure the infrastructure?

DRELL: There certainly is urgency, in my mind, to fix up several key facilities for dealing with this material at the labs. Absolutely, yes.

FETTER: I would say there isn’t urgency to do some other things, for example, a pit production facility. I wouldn’t view a new pit production facility as a priority or, in fact, necessarily a good thing ever to build.

KIMBALL: There are other activities, particularly the very fundamental stockpile surveillance and maintenance efforts that NNSA is behind schedule on. That’s what’s necessary to provide the early warning of any potential problem in the stockpile. As I think you mentioned, Sid, one of the concerns that we have about a rush to pursue RRW is that it could come at the cost of some other essential efforts to maintain the existing stockpile, which could raise questions about the need to resume testing.

DRELL: I think we all agree that the part that’s not urgent is getting on and building a new warhead design. But for the infrastructure, there are parts which I think we’re way behind on and we should get on with.

QUESTION: There’s something that he mentioned that you all didn’t mention. You didn’t seem to answer the question on the need for experience on how to design a weapon. Say in 50 years, there is a new peer competitor that could threaten us and we have not had the people come into the pipelines; students coming in to nuclear engineering who can have the design skills. In 50 years, all the people who were able to design warheads have passed away. Wouldn’t that cost a lot more money to say, “oh shoot, we need to make up for 20 years of not maintaining design skill sets and personal expertise—not infrastructure, not buildings, not pit facilities—but the people to maintain it?”

KIMBALL: Could you just identify yourself please?

QUESTION: I’m Jennifer with SAIC, sorry.

DRELL: I will answer that one. We have put approximately $7 billion a year into the Stockpile Stewardship Program to maintain a healthy NNSA and well-run laboratories. Those laboratories have had work on very exciting new scientific devices. They’ve been building and have brought into fruition during the past decade very fast super computers and accompanying codes that allow them to do high fidelity, three-dimensional explosion codes. There is the Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility, DARHT, down at Los Alamos that’s going to give us two angles and multiple pulses to steady the implosion. The National Ignition Facility (NIF) is coming on. 

These are very exciting science tools and you can do a lot to try and understand weapons.  We still don’t understand a lot of the fundamentals of what’s going on in the science of nuclear explosions. There are materials under extraordinarily extreme conditions. We didn’t have to worry about that for 50 years while we were designing new warheads. We have made great progress. That’s why I have greater confidence in the stockpile now than 10 years ago, even though we haven’t tested now for 15 years, because we understand these weapons better.

So there are very exciting scientific challenges. I think it’s very good while we have the mentors around to teach the young people and to have them think about new designs like they did for RRW-1. So, thinking about warheads, trying to understand them, challenging minds, giving them exciting things to do with new simulations and above ground experiments, that’s all part of this program. When the Stockpile Stewardship Program went in 13 or 14 years ago when the moratorium started there was great concern. That’s why the program has had the science-based stewardship, the life extension program, et cetera. There are some very smart people doing very good work.

I reject the notion that I have to blow out the side of a mountain to do good science, however.

QUESTION: So you believe that those programs are maintaining the skill set, the –


QUESTION:  – the nuclear deterrent skill sets that we would need in the future; not just to understand explosions, but to understand if we need a new weapon to deal with new targets? We would be able to develop that when we needed it?

DRELL: I think that is the obligation of the laboratories and Congress to fund to do that because we had nuclear weapons and we’re going to have them for a while. We have to better understand them and be able to see danger signals coming and how to respond. But that does not mean, in my mind, deploying a new weapon.

QUESTION: Jan Lodal, Atlantic Council. Sid, I would like to encourage you to talk a little bit more about the technical side of the uncertainty, if you will. Steve pointed out that there are birth defects, potentially, of the new weapons and whether you really know that they’ll be less uncertain than the old ones? What can go wrong with older warheads other than perhaps a little bit lower yield or maybe a little bit lower reliability? How significant would that be in that kind of a strategic environment where reliability drops 10 percent from where it is or yields drop 20 percent from where they are? Are there situations with the older warheads that are actually understood or known which the new warhead could deal with that are more serious than that?

DRELL: You want me to do that? The case is often made that we are near cliffs in the performance. In order to get the present arsenal to deliver the maximum megatonage in a warhead of the minimum weight—so we could put as many MIRVs on one missile as we could; this was our Cold War strategy—we went near performance cliffs. One that one could talk about quite openly is that during the boost phase you boost the primary to get big yield out of a little primary to drive the secondary. We know that you have to have a certain amount of energy in the primary explosion to make the secondary go off, which is where most of the energy comes from. So how close are we because of a shortage of tritium way back to being near the cliff where if you go a little bit below that energy, you don’t drive the secondary? The argument is that a new weapon would move away from those performance cliffs. So one has to look for those performance cliffs and see if there are any that bother you. 

It’s been talked about openly and it was made a big point of in the study in 1995 that was done actually by JASON. The unclassified portion talks about it in congressional testimony of making the boosting system more robust so you get further away from that performance cliff. They’ve been doing that. That’s an example of things you can do which don’t require testing or any kind of change.

There are, in a system like this, aspects where one looks at whether you are near a performance cliff. That’s what the stewardship program is doing; it’s looking. It’s been making improvements in various ways as it goes along.

QUESTION: So you’re saying that can happen inside the stewardship program and you don’t need the RRW. 

DRELL: That’s right.

QUESTION: What I’m looking for is something that you need the RRW. Isn’t it also true, though, that even in that extreme case you get a Hiroshima-size bomb?

DRELL: Oh, sure.

QUESTION: So it’s not that you don’t get any explosion out of this thing, even if all of these things went wrong that we’re proposing might go wrong. So my point being that it’s quite important, it seems to me, to understand the strategic context of what the mission is that you’re looking for with these weapons and not just saying, “well, they might not quite work,” when “work” is not very well defined.

DRELL: I’m answering the easier question as a technical man and saying that we have to have our eyes out for performance cliffs and stay away from them. Now, what would matter if we didn’t get the full yield? If we got 70 percent or 80 percent? That’s a deeper part of the question. That is a political decision and a strategic decision the government people are going to make. 

If you ask me, do I worry that our weapon will give us only 80 percent of the yield, I worry. I worry that it will give us 80 percent of the yield if we use it. 

So I’d like to stay away from many fundamental issues of what our strategic policy is. Where the juncture here is even consistent with our present strategic policy, what do we have to do? A longer term question is as we bring the arsenal down. If I saw us reducing the number so we were only dealing with military targets in Russia and we didn’t have 5,000 but maybe a couple hundred, how many warheads does it take to destroy a society? Yours is really a very deep question and it should be addressed in our nuclear policy. What is our nuclear policy and how much confidence do we need?

But for an outsider to come in and say, “well, if our weapons only have a 60 percent chance of working, that’s good enough.” You were in government; you know that doesn’t win any arguments about what decision to make. But maybe Steve has another aspect on that.

FETTER: I just want to add to that a little bit to say it’s very difficult to evaluate the value of RRW over the present approach because in the present approach of life extension programs and stockpile stewardship, if there were a problem in a current warhead, we would detect that and then we would attempt to rebuild the warhead so that those problems were corrected. Now, the assertion is that in that process of rebuilding and extending the life of an existing warhead, that unforeseen problems might arise and uncertainties might be introduced that would make it difficult to certify that rebuild.

But it’s just so hypothetical. It’s difficult to say how likely that is and what would be the impact of it. You also would have to weigh that against the equally unknown problems that an RRW might have as a result of its manufacture. So I don’t think that you can really say with confidence that in this hypothetical situation, one approach or the other would definitely be better.

KIMBALL: Anyone else? Or have we covered all the territory? Yes, sir, Mr. Rust.

QUESTION: Dean Rust, retired State Department. This administration supports this approach and they say that if you adopt it, you won’t have to test and you’re not likely to have to test and you could actually reduce your stockpile and so on. That’s actually good from a nonproliferation standpoint. So if you oppose that approach and you’re stuck then with the notion that the stockpile stewardship and life extension programs don’t give you the same degree of protection against those things that a reliable replacement warhead would, then you’re going to face increased pressure in the future to test from the people who currently support the RRW program. 

Let’s face it, you’ve got this administration which hates the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty but has maintained the moratorium on nuclear testing and in part they’re arguing that the RRW will allow us to continue that moratorium. Okay. So I mean if you’ve got that program in place eight or 10 years from now when there’s renewed pressure for testing, you could easily argue that the administration that hated the Comprehensive Test Ban was completely comfortable with this program. From a political standpoint, it seems to me this is actually positive for this administration to propose a program that they suggest will allow the stockpile to go down and reduce the likelihood of new testing.

KIMBALL: Let’s take the suggestion that RRW will facilitate deeper reductions and will reduce the likelihood of testing. Can we tell, Sid, whether an RRW warhead will make us less likely to resume testing than we would be under current plans?

DRELL: My technical approach is that it’s a wrong assumption this will make us less likely to test. Steve made a very good point which is that you worry about birth defects. When you have a new design, the most important problem is to get those birth defects out of the design. If you look at the significant findings which are published of our arsenal, you’ll find out that in the beginning there are more significant findings of things you didn’t think about, such as different materials being compatible working in the same environment or something like that. These are very complex devices and they grew slowly with the test program. We have more than 1,000 tests that give a pedigree to our present arsenal. 

We’ve seen birth defects and we haven’t seen the other half, as far as I know, of the bathtub curve where age means that the findings are going up in any significant way, which is why I said there are no significant aging defects that I see. So you have to answer the question first of all with what you know technically because is it true that if you have an RRW, you’re going to have greater confidence in that weapon 10 or 20 years down the line? You’re introducing birth defects that you have to worry about. Meanwhile, the life extension program is giving us the expertise and the knowledge to know whether a problem arises. 

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty allows you if there’s a problem, either technical or political, to abrogate the treaty and go back to testing. It’s in there for a good reason. But, in my mind, the technical risk, unless further studies, which I said we should do, convince me otherwise, would rely in putting a new warhead in there.

Now, put yourself in the head not of this administration, but the chairman of the joint chiefs or the president 15 years down the road and somebody comes to you and says, “you know what, things are not looking very good in the world and I’ve got an arsenal out there and I’ve never tested a warhead in it.” Do you think you feel secure? Ask yourself whether you ever could answer that question positively.

FETTER: This argument that RRW will make it easier for us to maintain the stockpile without testing would be far more convincing to me if it were accompanied by a commitment to ratify or push for the ratification of the CTBT by the administration and also if proponents of RRW in the Senate said that if they got RRW they would vote for the ratification of the CTBT. Well, then I have to say, I would look a little differently at this program. But I don’t see that that’s the politics of it. I see this as just another argument thrown in there to make the program seem more appealing.

KIMBALL: One other thing that I think is important to consider is back in October of 1999—a month I remember very well—when the CTBT was being debated in the Senate, the three nuclear weapons lab directors testified on October 7th that the Stockpile Stewardship Program will not be fully completed until the middle of the next decade and therefore they implied that the success of the program could not be guaranteed. Well, isn’t this exactly the same thing that D’Agostino said yesterday to the Senate Energy Appropriations Committee which is that if doubts about the confidence of a new warhead were to emerge, he could not guarantee that testing would not be needed when the RRW warhead ages.

I mean, essentially, there are no guarantees that you will never test. The question is: are we sufficiently confident that we don’t have to resume testing? The lab directors also said in 1999 that they were confident that the Stockpile Stewardship Program could maintain the stockpile indefinitely without nuclear testing so long as the program is fully supported and sustained. Again, we think the assumption that underlies the argument that RRW will reduce the possibility of resuming testing more than the current approach is wrong or is just impossible to justify. 

The other argument that has been made about RRW is that it might facilitate deeper reductions. That is based upon the idea that RRW warheads would be more reliable than existing warheads and therefore the number of non-deployed reserve warheads could be reduced. 

There are a couple of important things to consider. When are RRW warheads going to be produced and inducted into the arsenal? Last month, administration officials testified that they estimated that at best about 250 RRW warheads might be produced by the year 2020. Any deeper reductions in the reserve stockpile might not then be realized until the 2020s. Again, if we go back to the previous discussion, if the existing stockpile warheads are sufficiently reliable and if the deployed stockpile could be reduced because the United States and Russia are no longer sworn enemies, then deeper reductions in the deployed and reserve stockpile can be achievable much sooner on a much more rapid basis than waiting for RRW and waiting for the 2020s.

DRELL: These uncertainties that Daryl’s emphasizing are why I don’t say we shouldn’t do the RRW program. I said what we should do, though, should be technically sound. You’ve got to look carefully, which was my first point about how to do it, into whether you can build a technically sound consensus that there are some changes that would improve one of the goals that the program seeks, particularly use control, without requiring testing. 

I think one should be looking for these things. It’s the way you challenge your designers, too. But you shouldn’t make claims that are not founded. My position is, very simply, at the moment, we don’t know. We have no answer to the question: can you design a new warhead that would be safer, more reliable, live longer, have better use control, and that we’d have more confidence in without testing? That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be inquiring. That’s very different, though, from what they’re proposing in the budget as I see it.

QUESTION: Hugh Gusterson, George Mason University. I have a question for Sid Drell. What do we know about the Livermore RRW design and how close it is to the nuclear testing experience? There are rumors that it’s basically a small tweak of a design that once was tested?

DRELL: I really can’t go into any details on that except to say that the Livermore design was judged to have a better base and pedigree in past tests than was the Los Alamos one. Whether that is close enough or not to something that we know is something that’s being looked at. There is legislation that before money is released to do this, there has to be an independent review of that design that’s going to go back to Congress. So, we’ll see.

QUESTION: Diane Perlman. I’m on the Global Council of Abolition 2000. It seems to me that RRW sort of gives very mixed messages about NPT Article VI and that it sends the signal that there’s no intention to negotiate toward disarmament. Certainly, reductions give one message but the other strategies give the opposite message and it seems to be from my experience at NPT conferences and the dynamics of proliferation that this would drive proliferation. Would this provoke more proliferation in other countries who are observing?

KIMBALL: Well, we did cover that. Steve talked about the context in which this might be seen by other countries and that this would complicate efforts to convince other countries that the United States was interested in fulfilling Article VI and therefore it would make it more difficult. We could ask some of our embassy officials here.

It will complicate efforts to win support for the efforts that are necessary, the new measures that are necessary to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. We mentioned a few: safeguards, also trying to limit the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technology worldwide would be much, much more difficult if we don’t communicate through actions that the United States is holding up its end of the NPT bargain.

DRELL: If we were really cutting down on the number of warheads in an active way, if we were ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and we did adopt a vision that we said we’re really trying to get rid of these weapons, but if along the way someone comes along and says, I can make the weapons safer, I don’t see how you can say that’s a bad thing to do.

FETTER: I think the RRW program could be framed in a way that would be consistent with Article VI, but it’s not being framed that way. 

DRELL: That’s exactly right.

QUESTION: George Lobsenz from the Energy Daily. I wondered if you could just give us your best insight, maybe even speculation, that if you assume that the stated reasons that the administration is pursuing aren’t the real reasons—maybe that’s a little cynical—what other motivations they may have in putting this program forward. There’s been some speculation that this is just what the weapons complex is putting forward so they can develop other new types of bombs, such as the earth penetrator. 

FETTER: This phrase keeps coming to mind that I think that was coined in the Strategic Defense Initiative days, the self-licking ice cream cone. The idea is a self-licking ice cream cone is a program whose only benefit is for the people who are responsible for the program; it has no external benefit. I think that mainly this is a program by the weapons labs for the benefit of the weapons labs and it’s very hard to see what real tangible benefits it has for the larger national security of the United States. That may be a bit harsher than Sid would like to say.

DRELL: The RRW started out, as I said, as a very different program when Congressman Hobson first described it as a way of trying to coalesce the plants; not the weapons labs, the plants. That’s really what they were talking about: a lot of plants. Some people saw it as an opportunity to be good for their lab or somebody else’s.

I would just hope someone— since I know there are people in the media here—would make clear that there is an issue under this of what it is good to do and what the RRW could make as a real contribution, as well as what are the problems if it doesn’t do it right. People are cynical about our motives.

This is going to be much longer than this administration. It’s going to be next summer before even one has a judgment from the independent community whether RRW is going down the right track or not. So this is 10, 20 years down the road. So it shouldn’t be tied to just what some people in one administration think. It’s a question of what’s the direction you go to maintain a healthy arsenal and, at the same time, seriously, politically working through your actions to show that you really want to reduce the nuclear danger by reducing the arsenal and trying to get rid of these things. I think that’s a long term issue, and it’s going to take the media a lot of hard work to explain this to people.

QUESTION: So you don’t think it’s a totally self-serving program?

DRELL: Well, for some people it is, but there are a lot of people. The weapons labs are not monoliths. There are many people in the weapons labs who have very many different ideas on this, just as there are in academia. Sometimes we seem like monoliths also.

QUESTION: If I could just follow-up one more time. If there was a new Democratic administration to be elected in 2008, would you recommend that they continue with the RRW?

DRELL: I don’t care who’s elected, I would recommend that the RRW that’s been described so far figure out what it really wants to do because it hasn’t done that yet. You see, I don’t know what to do with the infrastructure; I don’t know whether I want 500 or 5,000 weapons and I don’t know whether I want to go ahead with a new warhead until there’s been enough work done and I can understand that it makes sense to make changes A, B, and C, and say I’m going to have more confidence without testing and they’re going to do me some good. They don’t have answers to those questions. So I don’t know what RRW’s doing yet. That’s my message. Let’s make clear what it has to do to be a contribution.

KIMBALL: One other observation, George, is that when we talk about the RRW program, what has been proposed so far is work on a single design to replace a single warhead type in the arsenal, the W-76. There has been testimony from the NNSA about the RRW approach that this RRW will be followed by RRW-2 and RRW-3 and so on, replacing the entire nuclear weapons stockpile with these new replacement warheads. There may be other approaches that are pursued: no RRW or a mix of RRWs and existing warheads. 

My point here is that there are going to be many different decision points in the years ahead and it would be extremely unwise for this Congress or this administration to make any judgment or choice that sets us on a course to go in just one direction, particularly if it is in an entirely new direction with new warheads replacing well-proven, well-tested warheads that have been validated by a long history of testing. That risks complicating our already complicated nonproliferation efforts. 

Any other final questions, ladies and gentlemen? If not, we’ll be here to answer any follow-up questions. We appreciate you being here. Please join me in thanking Sid Drell and Steve Fetter for being with us. (Applause.)

Posted: April 19, 2007