Review Panel Says RRW Certification Not "Assured"

WASHINGTON -- An independent scientific review has cast doubt on U.S. plans to design and deploy a next-generation nuclear warhead without underground nuclear testing (see GSN, Aug. 2).

Released Friday in an unclassified form, a report from the JASON group, a handful of scientists often requested by the government to provide advice on nuclear weapons issues, indicated that assuring a warhead is reliable absent explosive testing "is not yet assured."

"The certification plan presented needs further development," the scientific advisory panel found.

The Bush administration has argued that weapons developed under the Reliable Replacement Warhead program would be easier to produce and maintain than the aging Cold War-era arsenal.  It has pledged to doubtful lawmakers that the warheads would not require underground nuclear testing before being "certified" as ready for the U.S. arsenal. 

The White House hopes to put the design, based on work carried out at both Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories, into production as soon as 2012.  A more "reliable" design, officials have said, could lead to a reduction in U.S. stockpiles, maintained in part as a hedge against the failure of any one weapons system.

The proposed warhead could also reduce the risk that the United States would have to return to underground nuclear testing to ensure that the current warheads remain viable, Energy Department officials contend.

The United States has signed but not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.  It has, however, observed a moratorium on nuclear testing since 1992.

The design selected earlier this year to become the first RRW warhead -- later called WR1 -- is based on an explosive package that was tested when the United States still carried out nuclear blasts.  Officials argue that because the design would be a descendant of one for which there is live testing data, certification would be possible.

The JASON group suggested that computer modeling based on earlier nuclear tests might have limitations.  "A concern remains," members wrote, "that even though codes can reproduce the performance of previously tested weapons, it is not yet possible to quantify how well excursions from a tested design can be modeled and predicted."

Warhead certification would require "new experiments, enhanced computational tools and improved scientific understanding of the connection of results from such experiments and simulations to the existing test data," according to the group, whose review was requested by Congress.

It also noted that "substantial work remains" on the understanding of additional safety measure planned for the new design.

In addition, the scientists concluded that in the absence of explosive testing, certification challenges must be met with strong peer reviews, which would have to "play a larger role" than currently proscribed by Energy Department and national laboratory plans. The group called for a "broadly constituted" peer review team to pose formal experimental or computational questions to the warhead designers.

Representatives Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) and David Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman and ranking member of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee, called for the questions raised in the JASON report to be addressed before the United States pushes forward with the RRW plan.

The subcommittee sets funding in the House for the nation's nuclear weapons complex, and both representatives have expressed serious doubts about the Bush administration initiative.  In May, their panel's funding bill completely zeroed out the president's fiscal 2008 $88 million request for the program.

Instead, Visclosky called for a new comprehensive nuclear defense strategy as well as a stockpile plan to guide the transformation and downsizing of the U.S. arsenal that has roughly 10,000 deployed and reserve weapons (see GSN, May 24).

"The JASON panel has extended the set of policy and strategic questions raised in the House Energy and Water Development appropriations bill and report, and the committee is grateful for their insight," Visclosky and Hobson wrote in a joint statement on the response.  "Only when the Department of Energy has completed the work recommended by the JASON report can the nation appropriately consider what role an RRW might play as a 21st century nuclear deterrent."

Within the Energy Department, the National Nuclear Security Administration took the report as a sign it was proceeding with "appropriate scientific principles."

"I am pleased that the JASON panel feels that we are on the right track," said NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino in a statement.  "NNSA has developed a tremendous amount of scientific and engineering expertise over the years to maintain the reliability of the stockpile without underground nuclear tests.   We are applying this knowledge to developing a replacement warhead that will be more secure, safer, more reliable and more efficient to maintain, and we embrace the ideas of continued study and peer review."

The recommendations will be "fully considered," the National Nuclear Security Administration said in a press release.

Meanwhile, the Energy Department today is expected to announce that it has dismantled three times as many nuclear warheads as originally planned in the past fiscal year, which ended yesterday, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, June 7).

October 1, 2007
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WASHINGTON -- An independent scientific review has cast doubt on U.S. plans to design and deploy a next-generation nuclear warhead without underground nuclear testing (see GSN, Aug. 2).