Lab officials excited by new H-bomb
by Ian Hoffman
Oakland Tribune, February 6, 2006
For the first time in more than 20 years,
U.S. nuclear-weapons scientists are designing a new H-bomb, the
first of probably several new nuclear explosives on the drawing
If they succeed, in perhaps 20 or 25
more years, the United States would have an entirely new nuclear
arsenal, and a highly automated fac- tory capable of turning out
more warheads as needed, as well as new kinds of warheads.
"We are on the verge of an exciting
time," the nation's top nuclear weapons executive, Linton
Brooks, said last week at Lawrence Livermore weapons design laboratory.
Teams of roughly
20 scientists and engineers at the nation's
two laboratories for nuclear-explosive design - Livermore and
Los Alamos in New Mexico - are in a head-to-head competition to
offer designs for the first of the new thermonuclear explosives,
termed "reliable replacement warheads" or RRWs.
Designers are aiming for bombs that will
be simpler, easier to maintain over decades and, if they fell
into terrorists' hands, able to be remotely destroyed or rendered
useless. Once the designs are unveiled in September, the Bush
administration and Congress could face a major choice in the future
of the U.S. arsenal: Do they keep maintaining the existing, tested
weapons or begin diverting money and manpower to developing the
newly designed but untested weapons?
Administration officials see the new
weapons and the plant to make them as "truly transformative,"
allowing the dismantlement of thousands of reserve weapons.
But within the community of nuclear weapons
experts, the notion of fielding untested weapons is controversial
and turns heavily on how much the new bombs would be like the
well-tested weapons that the United States already has.
"I can't believe that an admiral
or a general or a future president, who are putting the U.S. survival
at stake, would accept an untested weapon if it didn't have a
test base," said physicist and Hoover Institution fellow
Sidney Drell, a longtime adviser to the government and its labs
on nuclear-weapons issues.
"The question is how do you really
ensure long-term reliability of the stockpile without testing?"
said Hugh Gusterson, an MIT anthropologist who studies the weapons
labs and their scientists. "RRW is partly an answer to that
question and it's an answer to the question (by nuclear weapons
scientists) of 'What do I do to keep from being bored?'"
The prize for the winning lab is tens,
perhaps hundreds of million of dollars for carrying its bomb concept
into prototyping and production. If manufactured, the first RRW
would replace two warheads on submarine-launched missiles, the
W76 and W88, together the most numerous active weapons and the
cornerstone of the U.S. nuclear force.
Altogether, the nation has 5,700 nuclear
bombs and warheads of 12 basic types, plus more than 4,200 weapons
kept in reserve as insurance against aging and failure of the
active, fielded arsenal.
Most are 25-35 years old. All were exploded
multiple times under the Nevada desert before U.S. nuclear testing
halted in 1992. It is in most respects the world's most sophisticated
nuclear arsenal, and beyond opposition at home to continued testing,
ending testing made sense to discourage other nations from testing
to advance their nuclear capabilities.
Faced by the Soviet Union, Cold War weapons
scientists devised their bombs for the greatest power in the smallest,
lightest package, so thousands could be delivered en masse and
cause maximum destruction. Designers compare those weapons to
Ferraris, sleek and finely tuned.
Scientists at the weapons laboratories
are laboring to keep the bombs and warheads in working order,
by examining them for signs of deterioration and replacing parts
as faithfully to the original manufacturing as possible. It is
an expensive and not especially stimulating job.
Some worry that an accumulation of small
changes could undermine the bombs' reliability. So far, every
year since 1995 directors of the weapons labs and secretaries
of defense and energy have assured two presidents that the weapons
are safe, secure and will detonate as designed.
The new reliable replacement warheads
are actually an old idea that 1950s-era weapons designers called,
with some disdain, the "wooden bomb." Bomb physicists
were proud of their racier, more compact designs and figured they
were plenty dependable already. The wooden bomb by comparison
"They said, 'Well heck, that isn't
a challenge to anybody'," recalled Ray Kidder, a former Livermore
physicist who found a chilly reception to proposals in the 1980s
for clunkier, more reliable designs. "It was like saying,
'Well, why don't you make a Model A Ford.'"
Now the wooden bomb is back in vogue.
With fewer, simpler kinds of warheads, the argument goes, the
arsenal could be maintained more inexpensively
and - assuming construction of a factory to turn out the new
bombs on demand - thousands of reserve warheads could be scrapped.
But in a sharp break with the past, the
new bombs would never be exploded except in war. The only button-to-boom
tests of the new arsenal would be virtual - simulated detonations
inside a supercomputer.
Today's weaponeers say they've learned
enough of the complex physics of thermonuclear explosives to guarantee
the bombs would deliver precise explosive yields even after decades
on the shelf. If military leaders agreed, the most lethal and
final resort of U.S. defenses would be deployed without a test
Ex-military leaders are split on accepting
a new, untested nuclear arsenal.
Former Deputy Secretary of Defense John
Hamre told a House appropriations committee last year that he
thinks a new arsenal will be needed some day. But he said, "I
do believe we should test the new weapons to demonstrate to the
world that they are credible."
Eugene Habiger, the senior-most commander
over U.S. nuclear forces as chief of Strategic Command in the
mid-1990s, said he would be inclined to accept the new weapons.
"The science is pretty well understood,"
The Bush administration and weapons scientists
say the warheads will not have new military missions. They will
ride on the same bombers and missiles as today's nuclear explosives
and strike the same targets. But administration officials are
talk of eventually wanting features beyond the sizable array of
explosive yields and delivery methods available now: deep earth-penetrating
bombs, enhanced radiation weapons and "reduced collateral
damage" bombs with lower fission radiation.
Designers and executives at Lawrence
Livermore are taking a conservative line. The lab's weapons chief,
Bruce Goodwin, talks of starting with nuclear-explosive designs
that are well tested and well understood.
"Our plan is to develop a design
that lies well within the experience - and within what we call
the 'sweet spot' - of our historical test base," he said
in a recent statement.
One candidate under consideration as
a starting point is the W89, a 200-kiloton warhead designed for
a short-range attack missile. It is well-tested, plus it comes
from a long line of well-understood designs and uses every safety
and security feature available at the time.
Yet weaponeers at Los Alamos lab and
Brooks, as the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration,
have talked of a more freewheeling design effort.
"This is not about going back to
rake over old designs. That's why I've got two different teams
of weapons scientists at two labs working on this," Brooks
said. "There's never been anything tested that will do the
sorts of things we want to do."
Such talk alarms Stanford's Drell.
"How the hell do you make a new
design without testing?" he said. "Those kinds of flamboyant
statements worry me because I don't believe we could maintain
a confident stockpile with new designs that haven't been tested."
Some former weapons scientists say the
wiser course is maintaining the current arsenal and boosting its
reliability in simple ways, such as adding more tritium to "sweeten"
the hydrogen gases at the very core of the weapon.
"We've got a reliable stockpile.
We have a test base for it. We have now in the last 10 or 15 years
far more sophisticated computational abilities than we had doing
these designs originally, so things are extremely well understand
in terms of the performance," said Seymour Sack, once Livermore's
most prolific designer, whose innovations are found in nearly
every U.S. weapon. "I don't see any reason you should change
Lawmakers say they are watching carefully
to make sure the new warheads hew closely to existing, well-understood
designs. But in a recent report on the new warhead program for
the Livermore watchdog group, Tri-Valley CAREs, former White House
budget analyst Bob Civiak said Congress has a poor record of restraining
the weapons design labs from what after all they were built to
"Congress thinks it can allow the
labs to design new nuclear weapons but restrict them to existing
designs," he said. "History shows that cannot be the
Contact Ian Hoffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.