Scientists Work on New Nuclear Warheads

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For the first time in nearly 20 years, U.S. nuclear weapons labs are drawing up plans for new atomic bombs. They would replace the aging warheads in today's missiles with more robust ones that would be easier to maintain. The work would completely transform the country's nuclear arsenal.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

For the first time in nearly 20 years, the nation's nuclear weapons labs are drawing up plans for new atomic bombs. The idea is to replace the aging warheads that sit in missiles with more robust ones that would be easier to maintain. The work has been going on for about a year. It hasn't attracted much attention, but as NPR's David Kestenbaum reports, it would completely transform the country's nuclear arsenal.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

This is the first time in a long while that designers have been allowed to work on new warheads. The concern has always been that such work would send the wrong message abroad or lead to a resumption of nuclear tests, and in the short term building a new generation of warheads would surely cost billions of dollars. All of these things alarm Stephen Schwartz. He's former executive director of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which was formed by scientists worried about the spread of nuclear weapons.

Mr. STEPHEN SCHWARTZ (Former Executive Director, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists): Now this is serious money, this is a serious proposal if it gets off the ground, and yet there's been absolutely no congressional debate, no public debate. We are on the verge of creating a new Manhattan Project, if you will, to re-envision the entire nuclear weapons complex and arsenal, and no one seems to know or care about it.

KESTENBAUM: Weapons scientists say it is time to re-envision the nation's nuclear stockpile. Go to the museum at Los Alamos National Laboratory and you'll find a model of the W78, a black, sleek cone no taller than your eye. The details are classified, but outside experts say it is more than 10 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The US has thousands of bombs in all--small, intricate and powerful, but getting old.

Mr. JOE MARTZ (Los Alamos National Laboratory): There is no question that at some time in the future that they will fail. The question just becomes when and how.

KESTENBAUM: Joe Martz is leading the team at Los Alamos designing possible replacements.

Mr. MARTZ: You can envision scenarios where certain aging effects would take you from a reliable deterrent to something where you do not have confidence that it would function at all.

KESTENBAUM: That may not happen for many decades, he says, and some argue it won't happen at all if you just replace the aging parts. But Martz points out that the United States expends a lot of effort keeping warheads up to code: replacing components, tweaking things that compensate for old age. Why not, he says, just make something new that's easier to maintain. The existing warheads were designed to be as light and powerful as possible. The ideal is to be able to overpower the Soviet arsenal. That's not a concern anymore. Long-term reliability is.

Mr. MARTZ: You might think of our current weapons systems as highly tuned vehicles--maybe a Ferrari. And really the role is to take those highly tuned systems and build something that's more robust, has higher margin, easier to manufacture--more of a Ford.

KESTENBAUM: There is enthusiasm for a new fleet of `Fords' in parts of the government. Officially, the project is called the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, or RRW. Linton Brooks runs the National Nuclear Security Administration, which overseas the weapons labs.

Mr. LINTON BROOKS (National Nuclear Security Administration): We are going to do this unless the program runs into unexpected--and they would be very unexpected--technical issues. But yeah, I think that there's very little question we're going to go forward with this.

KESTENBAUM: Brooks says the US would not be building new weapons, just updating the guts of the thing that goes `bang!' on the missiles. There will be no new military capability, he says, and other countries understand that.

Mr. BROOKS: And so I don't think that this is likely to raise significant issues. It hasn't so far.

KESTENBAUM: Can you tell me who you've spoken with or what countries?

Mr. BROOKS: We have a routine interchange with a number of countries; I'd just as soon not get specific.

KESTENBAUM: Brooks says the warheads will be designed conservatively so that the US won't have to set one off to make sure it works. But think about that for a second. Would you design a new car and trust that it will work without ever turning the key to check? Richard Garwin is a former weapons designer who frequently advises the government. He says it's possible in theory.

Mr. RICHARD GARWIN (Former Weapons Designer): But what I really worry about is that even though the technical people have consensus that a warhead can be built, put into a stockpile and is put into a stockpile without testing, then there will be irresistible political demands to test one to make sure it goes off. And that would have very negative consequences in the international scene because China has had only 43 weapons tests; the United States has had more than a thousand. I cannot believe that the United States could test a nuclear weapon without China following suit.

KESTENBAUM: Advocates of the program say, `No, no, no, you have it all backwards. If you keep the old weapons around, sooner or later someone will want to test one of those to make sure it still works.' That's why the new project is called RRW, Reliable Replacement Warheads.

It's unclear what Congress thinks about this whole project. Lawmakers appropriated $9 million for it in 2005. But 130 members of Congress recently signed a letter urging caution. The letter opposed a different weapons project, but at the end it expressed concern that RRW could lead to new warheads, quote, "without any established need or compelling justification." Bob Peurifoy is less diplomatic. He calls the program stupid. Peurifoy was a vice president at Sandia National Laboratories.

Mr. BOB PEURIFOY (Former Vice President, Sandia National Laboratories): RRW in my view is an attempt on the part of some at the design labs to find a reason for their existence. That's kind of harsh, I suppose, but that's my view.

KESTENBAUM: Livermore National Lab in California and Los Alamos are competing to come up with the best design. And you do get the sense that a horse that has been kept in a stall is finally being allowed to run again. Joe Martz says some scientists at Los Alamos who had been ready to retire decided to hold off so they could pass on their expertise.

Mr. MARTZ: From the standpoint of Los Alamos, this is an enormously exciting project. I've had a lot of people come forward and volunteer to work--so many, in fact, that I'm starting to have to turn people away.

KESTENBAUM: There's a mural here celebrating the scientists who put together the first and only atomic bombs to ever be used in war. Some critics of RRW say the weapons labs don't matter so much anymore. Wars these days are against terrorists or insurgent groups. Joe Martz says that misses the whole point. Nuclear weapons keep the peace. We maintain them, he says, so we won't have to use them.

Mr. MARTZ: You know, a former director of Los Alamos, Norris Bradbury, said it very eloquently. He said, `We don't build nuclear weapons to kill people. We build them to buy time for our political leaders to find a better way.'

KESTENBAUM: Martz says his hope is that the US will one day be able to rely on a much smaller number of nuclear weapons everyone knows will work. He sees RRW as a step in that direction. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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