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U.S. Presses For New Nuclear Weapons

Debate heats up over DOE plan to transform nuclear complex and produce new warheads

by Jeff Johnson
March 19, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 12

Late last year, about 50 people filed into a drab, gray room in the bowels of the blocks-long Forrestal Building, the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Department of Energy. They came to argue over DOE's plan to transform its nuclear weapons complex and produce a new generation of nuclear weapons.

The sweeping changes would come 60-plus years after the blast from the first atomic bomb rumbled through the barren New Mexico desert and nearly 20 years after the Cold War reached an end, bright with anticipation for a future of global peace. The department's proposal also comes at a time when the world faces new fears and growing threats posed by nonstate terrorists as well as the emergence of newly minted nuclear weapons states.

Some 20 people spoke at the DOE-sponsored meeting, a legal requirement as the department prepares an environmental impact statement. Speakers ranged from preteens to silver-haired seniors and from arms control experts to ministers. They held a common view of the plan—they didn't like it.

The meeting was the final one of 17 held last year at 12 locations near U.S. nuclear weapons facilities. In all, some 340 people testified. Many opposed the plan on cost and nuclear nonproliferation grounds; some, though, were mostly worried about their jobs and communities, which have come to depend on the business of nuclear weaponry.

In all, 33,000 comments were received by DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees design, maintenance, and production of nuclear weapons. The "Complex 2030" proposal, as the transformation plan is called, includes four alternative approaches to modernize and possibly concentrate or eliminate some of the three major nuclear weapons labs, four production plants, and the Nevada weapons test site. The number 2030 refers to the year that the plan specifies for the full implementation date, but officials say 2040 may be more likely. A draft plan with one configuration is expected by late summer or fall. The discussion is far from over.

A key part of the modernization is the U.S. defense establishment's intention to produce a new nuclear weapon, called the RRW, for renewable replacement warhead. Initially on two tracks, Complex 2030 and the RRW development are now merged. NNSA hopes to have the new warhead in production by 2012.

Credit: Jacqueline McBride/LLNL
Credit: Jacqueline McBride/LLNL

The new atomic weapon will improve safety, security, and reliability of the U.S. weapons stockpile, says Thomas P. D'Agostino, acting head of NNSA, in interviews and congressional testimony. It will be easier to manufacture with less environmentally damaging by-products than the old weapons. It will be more difficult to detonate or disassemble, if captured.

RRWs will have the same yield and be delivered in the same manner as today's warheads, although they will be physically larger and more robust, D'Agostino continues. The warhead will eliminate use of hazardous materials, such as beryllium, which has poisoned former bomb workers.

D'Agostino says he envisions "a world where a smaller, safer, more secure, and more reliable stockpile is backed up by a robust industrial and design capability to respond to changing technical, geopolitical, or military needs."

With the new complex, the U.S. can adapt an existing weapon to new needs within 18 months or produce a brand-new weapon within four years, he says. Also slated for enhancements are the skills of designers themselves, say NNSA officials, who note that, before the RRW, the labs had not designed a new weapon in 18 years.

When complete, D'Agostino told Congress, the new facilities "would restore us to a level of capability comparable to what we had during the Cold War." In return for a new manufacturing capability, D'Agostino says, NNSA will be able to reduce the size of the weapons stockpile.

However, the apparent hypocrisy of the world's leading nuclear power building a more efficient weapons complex and a new nuclear weapon system while threatening Iran and North Korea with sanctions for their comparatively meager nuclear work is not lost on NNSA or its critics.

Credit: ACA
Credit: ACA

"The U.S. has 10,000 nuclear weapons and the best darn arsenal in the world," says Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "If the U.S. can build new types of weapons intended to last forever and new factories to produce those warheads, it suggests to other nuclear weapons states that it is okay for them to do that, too."

Since the U.S. claims it will reduce its nuclear weapons stockpile, Kimball believes the RRW may not technically be a violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that calls for weapon state signatories to work toward nuclear disarmament. But Kimball says the NNSA program appears to be an implicit endorsement of nuclear weapons activities now being taken by other states that have smaller and less sophisticated arsenals than those of the U.S. "This makes it very difficult to win restraint from other countries," Kimball says.

U.S. actions, D'Agostino counters, "cannot be misperceived by other nations as restarting the arms race." He points out that the new warhead will be coupled with President George W. Bush's commitment to reduce deployed U.S. nuclear weapons to a range between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012, which is, coincidently, the year NNSA plans to begin manufacturing the RRW.

The U.S. has some 10,000 warheads in the current nuclear weapons stockpile, although the exact number is classified. For a decade, these have been maintained through NNSA's Stockpile Stewardship and Life Extension Programs in which sample warheads from the nine nuclear weapons types are disassembled and closely examined each year for deterioration, corrosion, and other problems.

The inspection program was established in lieu of nuclear testing, which the U.S. voluntarily ended in 1992. Each year, the directors of the three weapons labs report to Congress whether the stockpile is viable and safe without the need for testing. The labs have reported favorably on this score since 1999, when reporting began.

The RRW would change the Stockpile Stewardship Program by slowly replacing some current weapons. However, D'Agostino underscores that although the RRW is a new weapon, it will not need to be tested underground.

The new weapon was first recommended in a 2001 "nuclear posture review" conducted by the nation's military planners, who stressed that the U.S. should continue its dependence on nuclear weapons and deterrence but must update its weapons to accommodate new military missions. It recommended the RRW, a modernized nuclear weapons complex, and redesigned weapons, such as the "bunker buster" that Congress has refused to fund.

That review was followed by recommendations from the Nuclear Weapons Council, a joint activity of the Department of Defense and DOE. It urged a sort of competition among NNSA weapons labs, which led to the design of two new RRWs—one by Los Alamos National Lab and one by Lawrence Livermore National Lab with support from Sandia National Labs, the third U.S. weapons lab.

On March 2, DOE announced that the winner of the design duel was Lawrence Livermore and Sandia but that elements of the Los Alamos designs might play into the plan in the future. The first RRW will be designed to replace the W-76 warhead carried on submarine-launched missiles.

The council contemplates that the new U.S. stockpile should include four to six warhead types—two to four would be new RRW weapons, and the remainder would be refurbished current warheads held in the U.S. stockpile.

The defense recommendations call for a new approach to the role of nuclear weapons, but they retain the nation's dependence on them. However, a growing number of arms experts, including several former State and Defense Department officials, disagree with this framework.

Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz, former secretaries of state; William J. Perry, former secretary of defense; and Sam Nunn, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, recently urged a new direction in nuclear weapons policies that would lead to the end the world's dependence upon them.

Relying on nuclear weapons for deterrence "is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective," they wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial, following an arms control conference last year. They argued that the time has come to move past nuclear policies based on the old Soviet-American assumption of mutually assured destruction.

They urged a phased abolishment of all nuclear stockpiles and an end to deterrence based on nuclear weapons. In large part, their statement was supported by fears of nonstate terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons, a now-familiar nightmare scenario that would be "outside the bounds of a deterrence strategy."

"We are on the precipice of a new serious danger of nuclear proliferation in a world of terrorists," says Sidney D. Drell, who, along with Shultz, organized the Hoover Institute conference that led to the position paper. Drell is a physicist, emeritus deputy director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, adviser to the weapons labs, and an original member of JASON, a group of academic consultants who advise the government on defense issues.

"We need to take steps to break the current mold, and we have to be careful U.S. actions aren't perceived as being in defiance of the nonproliferation treaty," Drell says.

"I would obviously like to get rid of the weapons, but we must get rid of the conditions in the world that led to them in order to do that." Drell urges the U.S. to rekindle its vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, which emerged with the Cold War's end, rather than continue to rely on a balance of "bloated" nuclear stockpiles.

In the short term, Drell acknowledges, the country may need some sort of modernization program. "You have to remember that parts of the weapons complex go back to World War II," Drell says.

"But I also believe we need a clear picture of how many weapons we are going to need in 20 or 30 years," he continues. "I don't have a picture of that, and I don't see government policy statements anywhere that carry us beyond 2012, where we have through the Moscow Treaty between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed warheads.

"But by all public accounts, the U.S. would have another 3,000 warheads in reserve," Drell continues. "And I don't have the slightest idea what you do with 5,000 weapons in today's world. I've written a report that very carefully says if you had 500 weapons you would be just fine in a post-Cold War world."

Drell argues that the Stockpile Stewardship Program has been highly successful and has maintained the viability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. "There is no urgency to replace the current stockpiled weapons with a new design," he says.

He also worries that, "without careful discipline," a new design may lead to underground testing further down the road, despite NNSA's statements otherwise. Drell urges an independent analysis of the role of nuclear weapons and the modernization program. "The country needs to know what kind of complex we need and what kind of arsenal we are going to have," Drell says. "We need clarification."

Initially, NNSA's drive for a new weapon and new facilities sprang from fears the old weapons were aging into obsolescence. Of particular concern were the plutonium "pits," the fissionable core of a nuclear bomb that today serves as a plutonium trigger to ignite a much larger hydrogen fusion explosion.

The U.S. has lacked a large-scale pit facility since the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado was shut down in 1989 following disclosure of unsafe operations, an FBI investigation, and $18 million in federal fines. Currently, NNSA has a small plutonium fabrication facility operating at Los Alamos. Technicians there make fewer than 10 pits per year. NNSA plans to ramp up production to about 30 to 50 pits per year at Los Alamos.

As part of Complex 2030, however, NNSA proposes to fill a "critical gap in the credibility" of the U.S.'s long-term nuclear deterrence by building a new pit facility. The proposed facility would produce at least 125 pits per year. That works out to a little more than two per week, which is about the lowest level for a "modern, well-laid-out production facility," says an NNSA staff member.


The new facility would recycle old pits by melting down plutonium, purifying it, and casting or bending the metal into new shapes. It would basically rejuvenate the lattice that makes up plutonium, erasing the aging problem, the staff member says.

Plutonium undergoes radioactive decay and self-irradiation, which causes the buildup of americium, uranium, and neptunium, as well as the formation of helium bubbles in the pit's crystalline structure. NNSA had thought these decay processes would shorten pit life and render the pits ineffective. However, a study by the weapons labs themselves last year found otherwise.

The labs' study showed that plutonium in weapons has an effective life of at least 85 years. A follow-up report by the JASON oversight group backed up these results. The JASON report says there is substantial lattice annealing that counteracts damage and that plutonium alloys are resilient and maintain their integrity. Void swelling and increases in volume, which were expected due to radiation, did not occur with plutonium.

The JASON report released in mid-November says most pits in the U.S. nuclear stockpile have minimum lifetimes of more than a century. Even so, on Dec. 1, NNSA announced it would continue with the RRW program anyway. As justification for the new weapon, NNSA pointed to other nonnuclear parts of stockpiled weapons that will be affected by aging and to the need to show the world that the U.S. does in fact have the capability to produce weapons.

Credit: FAS
Credit: FAS

"What they really want is design capability," says Ivan Oelrich, a chemist, nuclear physicist, and longtime weapons analyst now with the Federation of American Scientists. "They want to be able to build nuclear weapons, and they want their designers to work on them. Just maintaining them is not technically challenging.

"But what is the mission for these multi-hundred-kiloton weapons?" Oelrich asks. "They can flatten cities and destroy civilizations and are on constant alert and forwardly deployed on submarines that can reach their targets in 20 minutes. What are they deterring? Is any area of contest today between Russia and the U.S. worth this? The pain is far greater than the prize. And what plausible nuclear targets could we find in North Korea?"

He argues that instead of the RRW, the U.S. should be going the other way and shifting to a less efficient but more dependable uranium, gun-type bomb, like the 15-kiloton bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. Such a bomb would not require testing.

Oelrich bristles over arguments that designers need to practice their art to remain competent. "Manhattan Project scientists went from discovering fission to building a nuclear weapon in less than a decade. They went from starting the Manhattan Project to exploding a bomb in less than two years, armed with slide rules," he says.

Plans for the RRW and facilities modernization have enjoyed support from Congress, but with limits. While Congress rejected the Pentagon's bunker buster, it allowed planning for the RRW and modernization to move ahead with the provisos that the RRW must not be a weapon with new military objectives and cannot lead to testing. Both former and current chairmen of the House Appropriations Subcommittee with NNSA oversight, respectively Reps. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio) and Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.), now question the need for the RRW and the Complex 2030 proposal.

"This RRW announcement puts the cart before the horse," Visclosky said on the day the LLNL design was selected. "We are not going to begin building more nuclear bombs without a serious and open national debate on that policy question," he added, also promising detailed oversight hearings this spring. His preference, he said, was that DOE spend its resources "reconfiguring the old Cold War complex and dismantling obsolete weapons."

Even Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who represents the Livermore area, chairs the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, and generally supports the RRW, warned, "Today's announcement is only an early step in what will be a long evaluation process." She reiterated Congress' goal in statements and in authorizing legislation that the RRW must reduce the likelihood of underground testing, not be used for new military capabilities, and contribute to reducing the size of the nuclear stockpile.

Funding is also likely to be a contentious issue. NNSA is seeking $88 million for RRW in 2008, up from this year's $25 million. The Defense Department has also requested $30 million for the Navy's part of the program in 2008. NNSA projects its part of the program will cost $180 million a year by 2012. NNSA has provided no funding estimates for the modernization program, and at the Washington meeting, DOE officials said NNSA could complete the modernization within its operating budget.

A Government Accountability Office examination, however, says the costs for modernization could run from $155 billion to $175 billion between now and 2030, depending on what proposal NNSA selects.

Costs must be provided in detail before moving ahead as part of a national debate, says Richard L. Garwin, a former weapon designer and JASON member. Meanwhile, he argues, current weapons are reliable and can be maintained acceptably through normal stockpile stewardship and the Life Extension Program. He notes that many of the proposed benefits—such as less handling of beryllium—would not be necessary for 50 or more years even if the current stockpile is simply maintained as it is.

In an e-mail exchange with C&EN, he conjectured that a green light on the RRW eventually will lead to testing. "How long will it be after the RRW begins to replace the W-76 before a U.S. president, senator, representative, or presidential hopeful demands that the warhead be subjected to underground explosive testing?" Garwin wrote.

Also pushing for a national discussion were those testifying at the Washington DOE hearing. David Culp, a longtime lobbyist for the Quaker Nuclear Disarmament Program, put it this way: "For 18 years, I've been working on these issues, and I see a lot of familiar faces here today. I remember a lot of events in this room—some good, some not so good—retirement parties, swearing-ins, holiday receptions, budget briefings, and public hearings.

"Some of the smartest people in this town work in this building. You have come to Congress before asking for a new weapon complex, you tried to get testing resumed, tried to get funding for new nuclear weapons, and you've lost those fights.

"But I tell you, there is more public opposition to this program today than on anything I have seen in a decade," he continued. "Please go back and come up with a program that really addresses national security needs and is something we can support."


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