Senate appropriators seem to have a problem with the National Nuclear Security Administration’s plans to refurbish the nation’s stockpile of B61 nuclear bombs. By going too far in its refurbishment efforts by putting new and untested safety and security features in the bombs, the agency could be risking the underlying reliability of one of the main nuclear weapons in our arsenal, the committee said in a report earlier this month (big pdf here):
NNSA plans to incorporate untried technologies and design features to improve the safety and security of the nuclear stockpile. The Committee supports enhanced surety of weapon systems to avoid accidents and unauthorized use, but it should not come at the expense of long-term weapon reliability. New safety and security features should be incorporated in weapon systems when feasible, but the primary goal of a life extension program should be to increase confidence in warhead performance without underground nuclear testing.
While I was doing background research for a piece to run next week (buy Tuesday’s newspaper!), Hans Kristensen at the Federation of American Scientists pointed me to the 2011 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (which the FAS helpfully posted this week), which discusses the implications of changes to stockpile weapons. Essentially, the problem is that, as the design of the fielded weapons drifts farther and farther from the original designs that we tested prior to the end of nuclear testing in 1992, our confidence that the bombs will perform as advertised drops. The result? From SSMP:
As the stockpile continues to change due to aging and through the inclusion of modernization features for enhanced safety and security, the validity of calibrated simulations decreases, raising the uncertainty and need for predictive capability. (emhasis added)
That “need for predictive capability” translates to a need for expensive equipment and programs to help ensure the bombs work as advertised. Follow the logic here. First, we spend substantial sums of money for the new safety and security features. But that means we also need to spend more money to certify that the bombs are really OK. Lather, rinse, repeat. As Kristensen quipped, “It’s a beautiful funding loop.”