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Bomb Designer Questions U.S. Nuclear Policy

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
    The history of U.S. nuclear weapons policy looks to Richard Garwin like an alcoholic for whom the answer to any problem is another drink: "More nuclear weapons, please."
    To Garwin, the latest effort to design a new generation of nukes— the "Reliable Replacement Warhead"— has the appearance of another binge coming on.
    The Reliable Replacement Warhead, Garwin told a packed audience Friday at the University of New Mexico, "is not necessary."
    This is no peacenik talking. Garwin, a physicist who helped design the first U.S. H-bomb, has advised the federal government on nuclear policy and technology for much of the past five decades.
    Garwin spent much of his career at IBM but has consulted frequently for the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories over the years. A strong advocate for the expansion of nuclear power, he also believes in maintaining an arsenal of nuclear weapons.
    But he believes the current stockpile of U.S. weapons is fine. If it ages and needs to be replaced, we should build exact replicas rather than designing something new, Garwin said.
    He argued that uncertainty over the new design would lead to inevitable pressure to test it with a full-scale underground nuclear detonation. That, he said, could lead to a global chain reaction as other nations currently observing a test ban, especially Russia and China, conduct tests of their own.
    Garwin's comments, in his talk and an interview, come as U.S. scientists are designing their first new nuclear weapon in more than a decade.
    Teams at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories are finishing competing conceptual designs of the new warhead. Federal officials hope to be able to build the first ones by 2012, according to a new report from the Congressional Research Service.
    The first versions of the design are nearly done, according to the report, and by August the final versions will be delivered to a federal panel to decide which design to pursue.
    While no decision has been made to go beyond paper design studies, the managers of the National Nuclear Security Administration have quickly made the Reliable Replacement Warhead the centerpiece of their plans for the future.
    In a March 3 speech in Oak Ridge, Tenn., administration chief Linton Brooks laid out a scenario that includes manufacturing plutonium parts of the new warhead at Los Alamos and eventually building a large new plutonium factory for the work.
    "The Reliable Replacement Warhead is the rage this year," Garwin said during his UNM talk.
    Garwin's belief in the reliability of current U.S. weapons is based on reviews he conducted as part of the JASON defense advisory group.
    In a series of reports done for the federal government in the 1990s, the JASON panel concluded that aging does not pose obvious problems for the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and that remanufacturing identical weapon parts was a reasonable approach should components need to be replaced.
    Garwin said there was also no reason to think aging weapons posed greater risks of accidental detonation.
    "There's no question of safety," he said. "Safety does not erode."