Reading Room

Tuesday, February 20, 2007  
Experts decline to endorse new nuclear arsenal

By: Ian Hoffman
Published In: Inside Bay Area

SUBTITLE: Uncertain cost benefits and ban on testing raise problems, scientists say



SAN FRANCISCO ? Experts assembled by the world's largest scientific organization declined in a report Sunday to endorse a Bush administration plan for redesigning all U.S. nuclear weapons, citing a lack of reliable cost estimates and of proven methods for verifying whether the new hydrogen bombs will work without test explosions.



The new weapons could lead to hardier bombs that are easier to make and harder for terrorists to detonate, but the cost benefits "are less certain and would only be established in the long term," a panel of nuclear weapons experts said

In presentations here before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, weapons officials and military leaders pressed the case for remaking the U.S. arsenal with more durable nuclear explosives, as well as more modern safety and security features than are present in existing weapons built in the 1970s and'80s.



"If the policy is to have nuclear weapons, the policy ought to be to make them as secure as possible, as safe as possible. Anything less is irresponsible,"said Gen. James Cartwright, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, the military branch over all U.S. nuclear forces.



Every year directors of the nation's three nuclear weapons labs and top Energy and Defense department officials certify the safety, security and reliable operation of the nuclear arsenal without nuclear testing and have done so since 1996. An official of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the weapons arm of the U.S. Energy Department, stressed Sunday that the existing bombs and warheads remain fine, but he suggested that senior scientists have uncertainty about what may happen to the weapons in the future as they age and components are replaced.



"We see increased risks absent nuclear testing in ensuring the safety, security and reliability of today's stockpile (of nuclear arms)," said John Harvey, the nuclear agency's director of policy planning.



With the new "reliable, replacement warheads," he said, the United States could move more easily to a leaner, less costly complex of labs and factories that could make the bombs on demand, reducing the need to keep thousands of redundant warheads in storage as insurance against problems, as is the case today.



Under a deal with Congress, the new weapons would have the same military missions as the bombs and warheads that they replace. But the factory to make them would give the United States more agility to manufacture new types of weapons, if needed, Cartwright said.



"It has to," he said. "If 10years from now, you need a new capability, the question is whether you have the science and the manufacturing capability to respond to it."

But an early report from a panel assembled by the American Association for the Advancement of Science ? most of them former Energy Department or nuclear-weapons lab executives ? found many of the benefits of the new warheads distant in time and uncertain, and said there is no clear evidence of future breakdown in the existing nuclear arsenal.



"I think the uncertainty is serious, and it's legitimate, but it's not yet empirical," said panel chairman and physicist C. Bruce Tarter, former director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is competing to lead development of the first of the new warheads.



The panel also said it was impossible based on information available now to judge the administration's new warheads against the current course of simply maintaining the bombs and warheads designed, tested and fielded during the Cold War.



"If there aren't numbers for costs or schedules, how do you know it's better than what you're doing?" Tarter said.

The experts did agree, however, that existing U.S. weapons are changing from their original designs due to aging and gradual component replacement with parts designed to be as close as possible to the original.

"It's a hard problem, and there's no panacea. And it's going to be with us as long as we have nuclear weapons," Tarter said.



The question then becomes whether it is better to stick with maintaining existing, well-tested designs or rely on the new, untested but more generously designed and more secure warheads.



"We would say there isn't enough information to say," Tarter concluded.



Administration proponents for the new warheads and a new bomb factory coupled with them argued that the plan should allow for more cuts in U.S. weapons held in reserve and make a return to nuclear testing less likely.



But some critics say other nations will read the policy as signaling U.S. intent to keep a nuclear arsenal forever, contrary to promises 30 years ago under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to work toward disarmament.



If the Bush administration chooses to pursue the new warheads, it will take "White House leadership that produces bipartisan support for two decades" and "be coupled with a transparent administration policy on nuclear weapons, including comments concerning stockpile size, nuclear testing and nonproliferation."



Without nuclear testing to prove that the new weapons would work, bomb designers would have to rely on a combination of experiments and measurements, and some members of the expert panel were not convinced that such a recipe has been found to deliver the same confidence as a full-blown nuclear test.

"Certifying a new nuclear explosive package remains an unproven technical feat," said Raymond Jeanloz, a University of California, Berkeley, planetary scientist and panelist.



Cartwright said he was confident, however, and felt future military commanders and presidents would be as well.

"My crystal ball is no better than anyone else's," the general said. But designing the new warheads with more generous specifications, less like a highly tuned sports car and more like a pickup truck, should help, he said.

"And the science has gotten better."



Contact Ian Hoffman at (510) 208-6458 or ihoffman@angnewspapers.com.




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