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Scientist Says Nuke Warhead Isn't Reliable

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
    Los Alamos nuclear weapon designers, in a fierce competition in the 1970s with rivals at Lawrence Livermore in California, cut corners in the design of a key U.S. weapon, leaving it unreliable today, according to a retired weapons physicist.
    The problem with the W76 submarine missile warhead has left the United States with a nuclear arsenal made up in significant part with weapons that could explode with far less force than intended, according to Richard Morse, who was a theoretical physicist at the lab at the time.
    "We're vulnerable as hell," Morse said.
    Officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the National Nuclear Security Administration, as well as independent nuclear weapons experts with access to classified nuclear test data, deny there is a problem with the W76.
    They say testing of the final W76 design, in some cases conducted after Morse left Los Alamos to serve on the faculty of the University of Arizona, show the design is sound.
    "It works," said retired Sandia National Laboratories vice president Bob Peurifoy, who served on a panel in the mid-'90s that reviewed test data on the W76 and other weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile. "The U.S. nuclear stockpile is healthy."
    The 69-year-old Morse has raised the issue in classified discussions within the nuclear weapons community for more than a year.
    He said in an interview this week that he decided to go public because he believes the government's unwillingness to address the issue threatens national security.
    The number of W76s in the U.S. nuclear stockpile is classified, but estimates by members of the arms control community suggest it is more than 2,000, more than any other nuclear weapon in the arsenal.
    If the problem Morse claims is real, it would appear to reduce the W76's ability to do the job for which it was designed— destroying fortified enemy missile silos.
    Morse, who holds the prestigious title of fellow in the American Physical Society, said he believes the only way to fix the problem is to remove the W76 from the U.S. nuclear stockpile and replace it on submarine missiles with a smaller number of W88 warheads, a more recent design that he said does not exhibit the same problem.
    Morse said the problem originated in a competition between Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory nuclear design teams to win the contract to design a new warhead for the U.S. Navy.
    Competition between the two labs in the past is legendary. Massachusetts Institute of Technology anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, who has studied lab culture, said a Livermore scientist once told him, "Remember the Russians are the competition, but Los Alamos is the enemy."
    The Navy in the mid-1970s needed a new warhead that was to be extremely light, so more of them could be carried aboard a single missile. To meet the goal, according to Morse, Los Alamos designers beat the Livermore team by making the weapon's radiation case extremely thin.
    Morse said the W76 was designed to have a yield equivalent to 100,000 tons of TNT, but actual performance is likely to be far less.
    Morse said the problem first showed up in underground nuclear test blasts as early as 1969. There were "many developmental tests" done to see if the type of lightweight design could be made to work, and "many if not most of these were not successful," Morse said in a written account of the issue provided to the Journal.
    Government officials defend the design. "The laboratory is very confident in the performance of the Los Alamos-designed W76," said lab spokesman Jim Danneskiold in a written statement.
    Danneskiold called the test record of the W76 "one of the most extensive of the weapon systems now in the US inventory."
    Anson Franklin, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, noted that the weapon's reliability has also been certified by Lawrence Livermore scientists.
    Morse contends that uncertainty about the W76 continued among weapons scientists well after the weapon was last tested in 1981. The scientists planned to conduct an additional underground test blast to resolve questions about thin case performance, but the test was canceled when the United States imposed a testing moratorium in 1992, according to Morse.
    Everet Beckner, deputy chief of the National Nuclear Security Administration's nuclear weapons program, acknowledged in a letter to Morse last fall that, if the problem is real, it has "national security implications for the United States."
    "When someone raises questions, we listen to them," Beckner said in an interview in July.
    Beckner said a classified meeting with Morse and other concerned scientists conducted in Los Alamos in March did nothing to change his conclusion that the W76 is sound.
    "No valid additional concerns were raised about the system to which there were not technical answers," Beckner said.