Understanding the reliable replacement warhead

By Hugh Gusterson | March 25, 2007

The U.S. weapons laboratories want to build a new, supposedly safer, nuclear warhead. But will it make the country safer?

On March 2, the Energy Department made the announcement that the nuclear weapons labs have long
anticipated and arms control advocates have long dreaded: It selected a design for the first new
nuclear warhead in two decades–a so-called reliable replacement warhead (RRW). Although Congress
has not yet approved production of the warhead, Energy’s announcement takes the RRW past a
significant hurdle, into the final step of the design process (if Congress appropriates the $119
million necessary for this), and in the direction of production and deployment.

In 2006, Congress authorized the two nuclear weapons labs (Los Alamos National Laboratory and
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) to develop competing designs for an RRW that might replace
the most common warhead in the current stockpile–the W76. This is the warhead that sits atop most
U.S. submarine-based missiles. Congress stipulated that the RRW design should be safer and more
reliable than the existing W76 design, that it should not confer new military capabilities, and
that it should not require nuclear testing in order to be certified.

The existing stockpile, of Cold War vintage, was designed to squeeze the most explosive yield
possible out of the smallest amount of plutonium. These warheads, instead of being built to last,
were designed right up against the edge of viability on the assumption that they would be retired
after a few years and replaced with newer designs. Congressional advocates of the RRW, such as Ohio
Republican Rep. David Hobson, have seen it as a program to replace temperamental nuclear Porsches
with reliable Honda Civics in the hope that future administrations would be bolder in cutting the
stockpile if they had more confidence in each warhead’s reliability.

Energy announced that it selected the Livermore design for the RRW because it had “a very robust
test pedigree,” according to Tom D’Agostino, the acting head of Energy’s National Nuclear Security
Administration. While the Los Alamos design was more adventurous, the Livermore design involved
tweaking a warhead (never deployed) that Livermore tested in 1980. Of the two designs, it best
satisfied the Congressional requirement that the RRW not require nuclear testing. The RRW will also
incorporate new protective features that make it, if Gen. James Cartwright of STRATCOM is to be
believed, as useless “as a paperweight” if it falls into terrorist hands.

It would be easy to assume that the weapons labs and the navy are united in wanting the new
warhead, but the truth is more complicated. Many older weapons designers have been lukewarm about
the RRW, which has been more strongly supported by a younger generation of weapons designers who
were just hitting their stride when the testing moratorium of the 1990s slammed the door in their
faces. The media have quoted Bruce Tarter, the former director of Livermore, and the legendary
retired designer Seymour Sack (whose design is the basis for the RRW) as being skeptical about the
need for a new warhead.

The warhead has also been opposed by two of the three newspapers in the Livermore Valley. And
the navy, which has had a legendary blood feud with Livermore for at least two decades, was always
ambivalent about spending the money a new warhead will cost. Now that Livermore has won the design
contest, the navy’s limited enthusiasm for this project can be expected to ebb still further. Also,
judging by comments on the entertaining
Los Alamos blog, there
are Los Alamos scientists determined that the Livermore RRW will die at birth.

An interesting political struggle looms on the horizon as Congress moves toward hearings on the
RRW. In this struggle, New Mexico and California politicians, who pay close attention to the
weapons labs, are on both sides of the issue–though all claim to speak in the name of arms
reductions. California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman,
and New Mexico Democratic Rep. Tom Udall have criticized the RRW, while New Mexico Republican Sen.
Pete Domenici and the representative from Livermore’s district, Democrat Ellen Tauscher, have lined
up behind it (the latter suggesting a bargain whereby the United States builds the RRW while,
finally, ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty).

In the debate on the RRW, such as it has been, opponents have mainly focused on two issues: the
reliability of the existing stockpile and the danger that an RRW will stimulate nuclear
proliferation. Many RRW opponents in nongovernmental organizations have cited a 2006 report by the
JASON committee of experts, which concluded that the plutonium cores of existing warheads will be
reliable for at least 85 years. If it ain’t broke, they say, don’t fix it–especially if the fix
might provoke other countries. Thus, the
New York Times has editorialized that the RRW is “a public relations disaster in the
making overseas,” while Feinstein has said the mass production of a new warhead, at a time when the
United States is trying to isolate North Korea and Iran for their nuclear initiatives, would appear
hypocritical and “could serve to encourage the very proliferation we are trying to prevent.”

These are good arguments, but still something important has been missing from the debate. It is
my own feeling that, if given the choice of waving a wand and changing all the current W76s into
RRWs, one would do so because the RRW is a safer warhead whose design is less likely to trigger
neurotic doubts about reliability among the men and women in white lab coats who can bring the test
ban regime crashing down if they tell the president that they have lost confidence in the
reliability of the stockpile. But changing the W76s into RRWs cannot be done by the swish and flick
of a wand. Given that the United States currently has the capability to produce about a dozen new
pits each year and that we are talking about replacing all the W76s–and eventually, the entire
nuclear stockpile, after future RRW design exercises–it can only be done by expanding the U.S.
plutonium pit production capability and, presumably, by building the new Consolidated Plutonium
Facility Energy seeks as part of its $150 billion Complex 2030 initiative.

We need, then, to debate Complex 2030 and the RRW as two sides of the same coin and to ask
whether we want to go back to being a country that mass produces nuclear weapons with all the
political, environmental, and health costs that entails. Ten years after the test ban treaty was
signed, at a time when the U.S. and Russian stockpiles are shrinking, at a moment when the U.S.
budget deficit arcs deeper into the red each year, in a year when the Iraq War is adding $100
billion to the $450 billion defense budget, we need to ask whether we want to restore the relevance
of nuclear weapons by devoting this much of our treasure to their refurbishment.

The real question is not so much what the RRW might mean to others, but what nuclear weapons
mean to us now.

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