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U.S. Nuclear Weapons Agency to Delay Work on Interoperable Warhead

The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration is opting to postpone work on a controversial interoperable warhead, Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor reports.

Don Cook, who leads the Energy Department agency's weapons program, told the publication on Wednesday that recent assessments of the two weapons the project was intended to replace -- the W-78 warhead used on land-based strategic ballistic missiles and the W-88 warhead fitted to submarine-launched Trident missiles -- revealed they could remain in active use for roughly another 15 years.

"We certainly have enough surveillance data ... to determine that we have confidence in those two systems, that we'll have confidence for a bit of a longer period of time," Cook said on the sidelines of last week's Nuclear Deterrence Summit in Arlington, Va.

The initiative to build a nuclear warhead-modernization package that could be used by both the Air Force and Navy faced considerable opposition on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers voiced concerns that it would cost more money to design the interoperable warhead than to revamp the two weapons it was intended to replace.

Meanwhile, the hefty contracts that private companies are able to command for managing the National Nuclear Security Administration's nuclear arms facilities could be done away with in the future, the agency's acting head, Bruce Held, said on Wednesday during the summit.

Held described the "creeping privatization" of U.S. nuclear weapon laboratories as "unwise" and hinted that the semiautonomous Energy Department branch could return to a "public interest model" for managing the facilities, according to Exchange Monitor Publications' "Weapons Complex Morning Briefing."

"The laboratories exist to serve the public interest and not to make profit," Held was quoted as saying. "That will affect our structure of the contracting mechanisms."

Held also addressed a recent security incident at the Y-12 nuclear-weapons complex in Tennessee, involving two small containers of highly enriched uranium that briefly went missing.

The acting NNSA administrator said he could not go into specifics on the matter as it is still being investigated but he said the sensitive material was "improperly stored."

The 20 grams of weapon-sensitive material is thought to have remained behind in the protective garments worn by a laboratory researcher that were then taken off and destined to be cleaned. Security personnel found the vials before they could be taken offsite.

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