Scrutinizing New Nukes | April 30, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 18 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 18 | p. 8 | News of The Week
Issue Date: April 30, 2007

Scrutinizing New Nukes

Panel urges warhead policy debate
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Homeland Security
Credit: AAAS
Credit: AAAS

A comprehensive examination of U.S. nuclear weapons policies should be undertaken before the government proceeds beyond the initial stages of producing a new nuclear weapon, says a report from an expert panel of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The panel conducted a yearlong study of the Department of Energy's program to replace the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile with a new "reliable replacement warhead" (RRW) and overhaul the lab complex that designs, manufactures, and maintains nuclear devices. The labs have selected a design for the first RRW, are beginning the engineering process, and intend to have the first weapon built by 2012 (C&EN, March 19, page 34).

The AAAS panel, which consists mostly of former DOE weapons lab officials, generally supports the program's initial phase, but it says the Bush Administration should lead a "policy framework discussion" about nuclear weapons before moving further, according to C. Bruce Tarter, AAAS group leader and a former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory director.

"What are nuclear weapons for, and how many do we need?" are questions that should be asked, Tarter says. "We do not believe the program can succeed without that kind of top-down discussion.

"Redoing the [nuclear weapons] complex is a major program that will take 25 years or three, four, five administrations and a dozen Congresses, and so we believe it has to have a bipartisan basis to carry it for that long," he continues.

The report also urges the U.S. to consider arms control implications of RRW.

Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.) and Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who both chair subcommittees with nuclear weapons oversight, back the recommendations.

Thomas D'Agostino, acting head of DOE's weapons program, commends the study and says it is consistent with initial RRW plans. The Administration, he adds, will "be looking closely" at the policy recommendations. The next step in the new weapons program, he says, is to "answer questions about RRW's cost and timeline."

In their investigation, the AAAS panel members say they relied on their own knowledge because "virtually no details were available about the program's costs, scope, or schedule."

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