Scientists Compete to Design New Nukes

Two teams of scientists have drawn up designs for a new nuclear warhead intended to replace the aging warheads on U.S. submarines. The scientists had to devise designs that they can guarantee will work without being tested.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Two teams of scientists are waiting to hear if they've won a competition to design a nuclear warhead. It's the first time the U.S. has considered a new design in nearly 20 years. The warheads are intended to replace the aging centerpiece of the U.S. arsenal, the W76, which is deployed on submarines.

NPR's David Kestenbaum examines the competing designs.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: This competition has one cardinal rule: thou shall not test. Designers had to devise a warhead they can guarantee will work without being made to go kaboom.

Unidentified Man: Five, four, three, two…

KESTENBAUM: This tape is from a 1953 test. In the past, the U.S. tested every design to make sure it worked.

Unidentified Man #2: There it is, a beautiful, incredible violet purple rising up over the desert floor, lighting everything up. You see each Joshua tree standing out in the - there comes the sound wave.

KESTENBAUM: The U.S. hasn't done any tests since 1992 with the hope of discouraging other countries from testing. So if this project goes ahead, this will be the first time warheads have ever been placed in the arsenal without a full-scale atomic test.

The plan, which is called the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program, is controversial. And how do you in effect build a car and know it will work without turning the key? Stick with what you know. Here's design number one, to the extent that you can talk about a classified design.

Charles McMillan runs the nuclear weapons program as Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Mr. CHARLES MCMILLAN (Director of Weapons Physics, Los Alamos National Laboratory): The Los Alamos design brings many creative elements to the table. It's based on elements that have been tested and draws them together in novel ways. This is a design that is different than anything that's in the stockpile today.

KESTENBAUM: And here's the competition. Bruce Goodwin runs the nuclear weapons program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The two labs are longtime rivals.

Mr. BRUCE GOODWIN (Director of Defense and Nuclear Technologies, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory): We took a somewhat different philosophy here. What we did was we drew on a single extremely high-margin design that we had tested in the 1980s.

KESTENBAUM: High margin means conservatively engineered, like a bridge that's been built far more strongly than it needs to be.

Mr. GOODWIN: Some might say that this is a role reversal. Livermore was typically characterized as the cutting edge, you know, push-the-envelope laboratory. Los Alamos was very often characterized as the more conservative.

KESTENBAUM: The designs are being judged on several criteria: simple manufacturing is a plus. A simple bomb can have hundreds of parts, a complex one, thousands.

Mr. GOODWIN: We very carefully chosen certain technologies from the past that, you know, for instance, eliminate entire production lines. In one case there's one particular production line that's a mile long that, if the California design is selected, can be closed.

KESTENBAUM: The new warheads are also meant to be green, to the extent that that's possible, with a minimum of toxic components.

Mr. GOODWIN: We're basically left with nothing more than plutonium and uranium and nothing else. And the weapon is toxic or hazardous, which is a huge change from the Cold War stockpile.

KESTENBAUM: The new warheads must also use what are known as insensitive explosives. The explosives compress the nuclear material and start the bomb going. Insensitive explosives are already used in some warheads and they're virtually impossible to trigger accidentally. Here's Charles McMillan from Los Alamos.

Mr. MCMILLAN: They're practically like blocks of wood. You could shot a bullet into them and they don't go off. You throw them in a fire and they just burn. They're very attractive from a safety perspective.

KESTENBAUM: And one more thing: During the Cold War, the U.S. wasn't terribly worried about the enemy stealing our warheads. Bruce Goodwin says terrorism has changed that. Existing warheads do have protections, but he says they can be improved.

Mr. GOODWIN: I'm talking about a weapon that utterly disables itself so that even if you steal it, it's no use to you.

KESTENBAUM: The deciding body in this competition - the Nuclear Weapons Council - had hoped to pick a winner in November. It's taking longer. Why? I asked Linton Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy, which oversees the weapons complex.

Mr. LINTON BROOKS (Administrator, National Nuclear Security Administration): Well, I think you can reasonably assume that it's taking a long (unintelligible) is because we have two really good designs and we're trying to figure out how to go forward.

KESTENBAUM: Critics of this program say it's unnecessary, that the existing warheads will do just fine for the near future. Brooks says no, the old weapons are aging and it takes a lot to maintain them. He says in the long run replacing them could save money and even allow the United States to reduce its stockpile.

Mr. BROOKS: I believe that people will look back at this as one of the best decisions the government has made.

KESTENBAUM: The winning design is expected to be chosen in the coming weeks, a design for a warhead that will never be tested and never used. That's the plan.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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