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Friday, March 02, 2007  
Livermore wins A-bomb, Los Alamos loses out

By: Scott Lindlaw
Published In: Associated Press (AP)

SUBTITLE: Choice draws criticism from nuclear weapons opponents.

SAN FRANCISCO - The Bush administration selected Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's design Friday for a new generation of atomic warheads, advancing a plan to update the nation's arsenal amid criticism from nuclear weapons opponents.

The Lawrence Livermore design beat one submitted by Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico because it can be built with more certainty in the absence of underground testing, the National Nuclear Security Administration said.

"Both teams developed brilliant designs," said Thomas P. D'Agostino, the acting administrator of the NNSA.

Leaps in computer modeling and experimental capabilities in probing the internal structure of plutonium allowed scientists to draw up an essentially new weapon without testing, said Bruce Goodwin, associate director of defense and nuclear technologies at Lawrence Livermore.

As the program progresses over the next six years, Lawrence Livermore will work closely with production plants, assuming Congress will pay for it and that shuttered manufacturing facilities are brought back to life.

If funded by Congress, the new warhead developed with engineering assistance from Sandia National Laboratories would be used on the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile system.

Many of the warheads in the nation's stockpile were designed and built 40 years ago, and their plutonium and other components are deteriorating in ways researchers do not fully understand.

The government spends billions of dollars each year tending to its aging stockpile.

Critics fear the project could send the wrong signal to the world at a time when the United States and its allies are trying to curb the spread of nuclear technology.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she was "100 percent opposed" to the new program, even though the choice of Lawrence Livermore brings great prestige, and possibly jobs, to her home state.

"What worries me is that the minute you begin to put more sophisticated warheads on the existing fleet, you are essentially creating a new nuclear weapon. And it's just a matter of time before other nations do the same thing," Feinstein said.

The announcement comes at a time when the administration is engaged in delicate disarmament negotiations with North Korea, which reportedly possesses several nuclear weapons, and Iran, which the administration fears wants them.

Iran recently called on the United States to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Opponents of the program also question whether a next-generation bomb can improve reliability and safety if it cannot be tested. Congress has financed the research on the condition that the redesigned weapon reduce the need for underground testing, which can leave residual radiation.

"Today is a sad day for global security," said Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CAREs, a Livermore-area watchdog group. "Our government is sending a signal that will increase international proliferation pressures and increase the nuclear danger."

The administration's Nuclear Weapons Council found several proposed features of the Los Alamos design "highly innovative" and said they could be integrated into the future warhead design.

Glenn Mara, principal associate director for weapons programs at Los Alamos, offered no examples but said Los Alamos will review the design and has expertise in the technology to trigger detonation.

Revamping the nation's warheads will nurture a new generation of nuclear scientists and engineers, Mara said.

If approved by Congress, the new weapon would be much larger than Cold War-era ones, though it would pack the same explosive power with fewer warheads. The shift in priorities to a heavier warhead eliminates the need for beryllium, a toxic material prized for its light weight, Goodwin said.

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