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New U.S. Warhead Not Needed for Reliability, Physicists Say

(Mar. 2) -A technician works in Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Contained Firing Facility, part of the program to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile (LLNL photo). (Mar. 2) -A technician works in Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Contained Firing Facility, part of the program to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile (LLNL photo).

A reliable U.S. nuclear arsenal can be maintained into the future without developing new warhead designs, two physicists wrote in a electronic engineering journal this month (see GSN, Feb. 25).

The question was at the core of a Bush administration effort to develop a Reliable Replacement Warhead that would be designed with modern features to decrease maintenance requirements and enhance the weapon's security. Proponents have argued that having a new warhead would allow the United States to make major nuclear arsenal reductions by reducing the need to keep a large reserve of warheads (see GSN, Oct. 29, 2008).

Critics, however, have said that U.S. efforts to extend the design lifetimes of current warheads have succeeded and building new designs would make it more difficult to persuade other nations to refrain from nuclear-weapon pursuits.

Physicists Francis Slakey and Benn Tannenbaum argue in this month's IEEE Spectrum that there has been little evidence of decaying quality in the existing arsenal.

"While the stockpile is undoubtedly aging, it doesn’t appear to be close to the end of its useful life. That means there is still time for a careful evaluation of technical options for maintaining the nuclear deterrent, without having to resort to building entirely new warheads," said Slakey of Georgetown University and Tannenbaum of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A respected panel of defense experts concluded in 2007 that plutonium components of nuclear weapons could be expected to retain their designed explosive capabilities for 100 years, so the real question for aging warheads is whether their electronics will continue to function, the two argue.

Data released by nuclear-weapon laboratories have indicated that there has been a low incidence of serious defects to warheads when they have been routinely inspected. Indeed, defects "are infrequent even for systems that are more than 30 years old," the two state. Furthermore, scientists would expect systems near the end of their lifetime to begin showing more frequent failures, but there has been no such uptick in warhead defects.

Therefore, Slakey and Tannenbaum argue that a vigorous program of testing and modernizing the non-nuclear components of weapons will effectively extend their lifetimes.

"We are confident that the current program of stockpile stewardship, with some modifications, can preserve the U.S. arsenal for the foreseeable future and that it isn’t necessary ... to pursue new warheads," the wrote (Slakey/Tannenbaum, IEEE Spectrum, March 2009).

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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