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Lab Chiefs Find U.S. Nuclear-Weapon Update Approach Adequate, But Not Ideal

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

(Jul. 16) -JASON Defense Advisory Group Chairman Roy Schwitters, left, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday with the heads of the Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories.  The laboratory directors said an Obama administration plan would provide for adequate maintenance of the U.S. nuclear deterrent (Win McNamee/Getty Images) (Jul. 16) -JASON Defense Advisory Group Chairman Roy Schwitters, left, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday with the heads of the Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories. The laboratory directors said an Obama administration plan would provide for adequate maintenance of the U.S. nuclear deterrent (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- Directors of the three major U.S. nuclear laboratories yesterday said Obama administration plans for modernizing the nation’s aging arsenal would be sufficient -- even if somewhat short of ideal -- for maintaining viable weapons (see GSN, July 13).

One of the leaders, Los Alamos National Laboratory chief Michael Anastasio, told a Senate panel the atomic modernization plan allows “adequate” flexibility to maintain viable weapons into the future, but removal of all restrictions on overhauling warheads would constitute “the more perfect solution.”

His colleagues testifying at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing -- George Miller of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Paul Hommert of Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico -- largely agreed.

Their remarks come on the heels of Republican complaints that the administration’s blueprint for updating the stockpile -- much of which is decades old -- heightens the risk of weapons malfunction.

A guideline laid out in an Obama administration report released in April “limits the technical freedom of our military and scientific experts to consider new designs to update aging nuclear weapons,” Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said in a recent Wall Street Journal commentary.

He deplored the approach as one facet of President Barack Obama’s “unrealistic” objective of moving toward “a utopian idea of nuclear zero.”

In fact, the Defense Department-led Nuclear Posture Review concluded that as particular types of weapons enter overhaul in the coming years, any of the “three-R” modernization approaches could be considered: Refurbishment of existing warhead designs; reuse of components from the same or other warheads; or replacement of components with designs that have been previously tested but never deployed.

In each case, officials from the national laboratories and other organizations in the nuclear complex would be asked for their best technical advice on how to proceed, the administration has said.

Still, the posture review said the administration would give “strong preference” to options for refurbishment or reuse. Given political and international controversy surrounding the notion of building a “new” U.S. warhead, any plans for weapon replacement would proceed only as a last resort and solely with presidential and congressional approval.

The Obama guidelines largely track with recommendations last fall from the JASONs, a top-level scientific advisory group to the U.S. government. In findings first reported by Global Security Newswire, the independent panel supported efforts aimed at extending the lives of today’s warheads, rather than replacing them with reworked designs (see GSN, Nov. 9, 2009).

Under the Stockpile Stewardship effort, the U.S. nuclear weapons complex has inspected weapons in the arsenal to monitor the effects of aging, and carried out non-nuclear tests and computer simulations to anticipate problems and devise fixes. Physicists and engineers can then repair or remanufacture aging components without altering their design details.

The United States has an estimated 2,468 operational nuclear warheads, with roughly another 2,600 in reserve. Under the “New START” agreement signed with Russia in April, Washington and Moscow are both expected to reduce their arsenals to no more than 1,550 operational warheads (see related GSN story, today).

Each of the three laboratory heads in January issued letters in response to the JASON report findings, at the request of Representative Michael Turner (R-Ohio), ranking member of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee. In the letters, the chiefs said the looming possibility of age-related malfunctions suggests that reuse and replacement approaches might be necessary, in addition to refurbishment.

“For any potential life-extension program, all potential approaches should be examined,” Miller wrote in his Jan. 7 letter to Turner.

At yesterday’s hearing, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) noted that 10 former national laboratory directors had voiced concern that treating replacement options as a last resort would inhibit scientific inventiveness and lead to the loss of personnel with crucial design skills for the nuclear-weapon complex.

“We believe this ‘higher bar’ for certain life-extension options will stifle the creative and imaginative thinking that typifies the excellent history of progress and development at the national laboratories, and indeed will inhibit the NPR’s goal of honing the specialized skills needed to sustain the nuclear deterrent,” according to the former directors’ May 19 letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Signatories included John Foster, who headed Livermore in the early 1960s, and Siegfried Hecker, who directed Los Alamos in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Certainly having no restrictions would be the more perfect solution, but I believe with the way the NPR is written, that we have an adequate level of technical flexibility to carry out our mission,” Anastasio said in response to questioning from McCain.

The Los Alamos leader remarked that while the posture review included “restrictions” on how modernization could proceed, “we have both the authority and the responsibility to explore, on a case-by-case basis, what’s the best technical approach for each weapon system, to extend its life well into the future.”

The modernization approach would “include the full range of options that will spark and stimulate the innovation and creativity of our work force,” Anastasio added.

Miller, the Livermore director, went a bit further in echoing the former laboratory leaders’ worries.

“The concern expressed by the former lab directors is obviously a legitimate concern. It’s a concern that I have,” he testified. “However … I believe that the situation we have is a workable one.”

Miller said it is his “responsibility to make sure that the full range of options and creativity are exercised by our work force, by our [weapon] designers, in bringing forth for consideration by the Congress and the administration all of the potential options for improving the stockpile in the future.”

In his January letter responding to the JASON findings, Miller suggested the traditional approach to warhead life extension -- which has involved solely refurbishment of existing parts -- could be detrimental to the long-term quality of work.

“The current LEP [life-extension program] approach exercises only that portion of the intellectual base required to make LEP repair,” Miller wrote. “It does not fully exercise the overall intellectual base required to maintain the nuclear force.”

Testifying alongside the laboratory directors, Roy Schwitters, chairman of the JASON Defense Advisory Group, sharply differed with the idea that the new policies would inhibit the facilities’ physicists and engineers.

“I disagree with the statement in the former directors’ letter,” he said. “I think it fails to properly account for the knowledge that’s been a result of ongoing Stockpile Stewardship.”

There are “tough technical challenges” facing the nuclear complex in maintaining the arsenal, and grappling with these hurdles presents “opportunities for people to really grow professionally and to explore the full range of physically sensible solutions,” Schwitters said. “So I don’t agree with them and I’ve spoken with some of the [former] directors on that list about it.”

He received a somewhat prickly response from McCain, the committee’s ranking member.

“I wasn’t asking about knowledge or challenges,” he said. “I was asking about whether this policy would constrain our ability to replace as well as to refurbish.”

In his prepared testimony at the outset of the hearing, Miller said the new approach would actually introduce new versatility in managing the stockpile, compared to the past.

The administration’s plans for updating weapons “offer us the opportunity to provide important resiliency to the stockpile as the size is reduced by having warheads that are easily adaptable from one [delivery] system to another,” he said.

Later in the hearing, Hommert noted that an upcoming overhaul of the Minuteman 3 ICBM’s W-78 warhead could implement a new “reuse” approach.

GSN broke the story late last year that the Pentagon was exploring how a single nuclear modernization package might be used in overhauling both the Air Force W-78 and the Navy W-88, a warhead used aboard Trident D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (see GSN, Dec. 24, 2009).

However, the idea of mixing and matching components on different warheads in new configurations that have never been tested together has troubled a number of nuclear-weapon experts (see GSN, June 16). Critics say that in the absence of underground explosive tests -- which the United States has suspended since 1992 -- the approach could heighten the risk that a weapon would not perform as intended.

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