Volume 85 Issue 41 | p. 10 | News of The Week
Issue Date: October 8, 2007

DOE Weapons Plan Needs Improvement

Science panel challenges nuclear weapons development process
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Homeland Security
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California was selected to engineer a new generation of nuclear warheads.
Credit: LLNL
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California was selected to engineer a new generation of nuclear warheads.
Credit: LLNL

THE DEPARTMENT of Energy should overhaul its process to design and produce a new family of nuclear weapons, says a recent report by JASON, an influential government advisory panel of academic scientists.

For several years, DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration has been designing a "reliable replacement warhead" to replace its current stockpile of some 10,000 nuclear weapons. The RRW will be safer and more secure, easier to manufacture, and more difficult to detonate if captured, NNSA says. It wants the weapon in production by 2012 and has selected Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to engineer the RRW with support from Sandia National Laboratories.

However, NNSA's plan has run into opposition due to nuclear weapon proliferation concerns, costs, and the fear that it will lead to a return to underground testing (C&EN, March 19, page 34).

"The [JASON] report's take-home message is that NNSA is following good scientific procedures, but there are some areas where more work is going to be needed," says Roy F. Schwitters, chairman of the JASON steering committee and a physicist at the University of Texas, Austin. "In this new world of developing new nuclear weapons without underground testing, the question is, 'What can replace the confidence-building role of an underground nuclear test?' "

While NNSA has stressed the view that the new weapon can be designed on the basis of past nuclear test data, the report finds that the current NNSA experiments and analyses using that data are inadequate.

Schwitters also underscores the importance of peer review and the need to create a new, highly visible, and broadly constituted peer review system led by the weapons lab not involved with the RRW, Los Alamos National Laboratory. Overseeing a nuclear weapons project requires oversight by weapons experts, Schwitters says, but LANL should draw reviewers from as broad a range as possible.

Schwitters recommends appointment of a "top-level monitor" to ensure the overall review is really independent. The monitor should be a widely recognized person or blue-ribbon panel, reporting to Congress, the public, and the President, he says.

JASON's criticisms in part mirror those of the chairman and the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee with DOE oversight, respectively, Reps. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.) and David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), who called for the JASON study.

In a joint statement, Visclosky and Hobson say, "Once again, independent sources have raised serious questions that must be addressed before proceeding with the RRW." They also urged the President to develop a "substantive nuclear weapons strategy" before investing "billions of dollars to transform the nuclear weapons arsenal and manufacturing complex."

NNSA Administrator Thomas P. D'Agostino responded positively to the report, saying it shows "we are on the right track" and that with enhancements NNSA can certify the RRW for addition to the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile without underground testing.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society

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