Friday, July 22, 2005
New-Nuke Design Efforts Expedited
By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
Pentagon planners and nuclear weapons scientists, working on a shoestring budget, are moving quickly to begin designing a new easy-to-maintain nuclear warhead, according to an internal congressional analysis.
The initial effort is focused on coming up with preliminary designs in the next 18 months for a replacement to the Los Alamos National Laboratory-designed warheads carried aboard Navy nuclear missile submarines, according to the report from the Congressional Research Service.
The report, obtained by the Journal, adds substantial new detail to what is publicly known about the normally secretive process of nuclear weapons design. It suggests the nuclear weapons community is moving quickly with the limited funds available to flesh out details of the Reliable Replacement Warhead.
Funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead project, launched last November by Congress, is relatively tiny $9 million, less than one-sixth of 1 percent of the National Nuclear Security Administration's $6.2 billion annual budget.
Officials involved with the project say it is an attempt to replace finicky old Cold War weapons, which are expensive to maintain, with simpler designs that perform the same military mission but can be maintained at less cost.
The congressional definition of the Reliable Replacement Warhead was brief: a "program to improve the reliability, longevity and certifiability of existing weapons and their components."
From that simple beginning, federal weapons officials have quickly laid out a far-reaching effort to begin designing a new submarine warhead, according to the Congressional Research Service report.
"They're trying to drive a truck through the eye of a needle quickly," said Christopher Paine, a non-government analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an arms control and environmental group.
The United States has not built a new nuclear warhead since 1989, when the Rocky Flats plutonium factory outside Denver was shut down.
Since that time, the nuclear weapons laboratories and plants have been trying to maintain and upgrade existing warheads. The Reliable Replacement Warhead is a response to criticisms that maintaining the old hardware has become increasingly difficult and expensive.
According to the new report, a planning team met in May that included members from the Pentagon, the nuclear weapons labs and weapons production plants. Representatives from Lockheed Martin Space Systems, which makes the missiles that would carry the new warhead, also attended.
The plan laid out at the May meeting calls for competing teams from Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national labs to come up with a preliminary design within 18 months. Sandia National Laboratories, which designs the weapons' non-nuclear parts, would be represented on both teams, according to the new report.
The winning lab team would then develop a full design, which the Pentagon hopes to begin building by 2012, according to the Congressional Research Service report.
The report suggests some friction between the Pentagon and the National Nuclear Security Administration on this point. It notes that the NNSA thinks "2015 may be a more achievable date" because of the cost and workload associated with maintaining existing U.S. warheads in the meantime.
The report notes that the new warhead design effort has won widespread congressional support. Both the House and Senate have already voted to nearly triple the budget for the work next year to $25 million, well above the Bush administration's $9.4 million request for the work.