Government Blends Two New Nuclear Warhead Designs

The Department of Energy has sponsoring a design contest for a new nuclear warhead to replace aging ones. Now, a hybrid of two competing designs has been chosen.

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In Washington, the Department of Energy is about to announce the results of a design contest - not for a new light bulb, for a new nuclear warhead to replace aging ones in the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

Two teams have submitted designs. And it now looks like the winner is going to be - both? NPR's David Kestenbaum is with us. David, a contest without a winner and with a big objective.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: It's a verily a hybrid design combines the best of both features. I don't know if that means the front of one and the back of the other. But this is a contest basically between the two nuclear weapon labs, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Livermore National Laboratory. And they've been asked to design a new warhead to sit in the nuclear submarines on the tops of missiles, because the ones there are getting old.

And so the idea is that this hybrid combines the best of both. But also, importantly, it keeps both labs involved in the next stages. Critics say this is all a big make-work project and that of course it's a hybrid because then you don't have to announce any losers.

CHADWICK: Does a nuclear weapon go bad after a while? That is, how long could a weapon sit on top of one of these rockets and still function?

KESTENBAUM: That's a big debate. There was concern about, for instance, the plutonium - the heart of the nuclear weapon - because, you know, it's radioactive so it's throwing off all these little bits of radioactive material inside it, and maybe changing the plutonium itself. At some point the lifetime for that was placed at 45 years, but they recently came out with an estimate saying actually it's good for 85 or more.

So, you know, there are lots of parts to a nuclear weapon. They do have to keep refurbishing these, you know, replacing certain parts as they get old. And the government says, look, this is a difficult process and it's expensive to keep doing this. Why don't we just replace them with something that's more reliable, something that's simpler to manufacture, easier to maintain, that we don't have to worry about? And that's what this program is. It's called the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program.

CHADWICK: Okay, David, another nuclear development. Last week, the man who oversees the federal nuclear weapons program - his name is Linton Brooks - he was fired, and the stated reason was security and management problems at the labs. How good is security there?

KESTENBAUM: I think if you tried to break in, you wouldn't get past the gate. But one of the concerns is insider threats, you know, someone who works there. Because this fall, in October, for instance, police who were doing a drug raid on a mobile home near Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico found some classified material. And it turns out this woman - the woman who worked there, her job was to basically scan these classified documents and put them in a database, had brought some of the stuff home. Some of it was in electronic format. And the lab has now put glue in the USB ports on its computers to prevent this from happening again.

But I interviewed the lab's director, Michael Anastasio, after this incident. And he saw the problem as, look, someone just broke the rules. You know, yes, this was bad but this woman was trained and she shouldn't have brought this stuff home. So he didn't necessarily see it as a problem of, you know, we had bad security, as much as it is that someone just broke the rules.

CHADWICK: And replacing the guy at the top is going to fix that?

KESTENBAUM: Well, I have to say, there are a lot of people outside and inside, I think, who feel that Linton Brooks is the one who should have been doing the firing and not the guy who should have been fired. He has something like 40 years experience doing national security. He was in the Reagan White House. He led the negotiations of the START nuclear arms reduction treaty. And there's widespread speculation that there are also personality conflicts going on. There are certainly a lot of people who are sad to see him go.

CHADWICK: Reporting for the NPR Science Desk, David Kestenbaum. David, thank you again.

KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.

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