ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Some tough criticism today for the first new nuclear warhead design in nearly two decades. The Bush administration chose the warhead to replace older ones currently aboard Trident missiles. The group criticizing the new warhead includes some top scientists and three former directors of laboratories that design nuclear weapons.

NPR David Kestenbaum has that story.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: The U.S. had nine types of warheads in its arsenal. The majority - designed over 30 years ago. Some experts say it's time to replace them with new ones better suited to the modern world. Simpler warheads that are more resistant to aging, cheaper to maintain with additional security features. But the new report says that may be easier said than done. Bruce Tarter is an author. He used to run one of the weapons labs, Lawrence Livermore, in California.

Dr. BRUCE TARTER (Former Director, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory): The committee felt that although those are possible things you could add to designs or warheads in the long term that, in fact, each one is a significant challenge, and you need to have a lot more skepticism and caution about how well you can do before you describe them as done deals.

KESTENBAUM: The report was released by the nonpartisan American Association for the Advancement of Science. The report was also skeptical about another claim that the new warheads will save money. Tarter says the country would have to do two things at once - maintain existing warheads and build new ones.

Dr. TARTER: And so it's going to be a long time before you'll get economic savings out. So some of the benefits advertised for the program may be true on paper, but we think there's a long, long way to go before they can be actually arrived at in practice.

Mr. TOM D'AGOSTINO (Acting Director, National Nuclear Security Administration): I'd have to disagree.

KESTENBAUM: This is Tom D'Agostino, who oversees the nuclear weapons complex. He's the acting director of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Mr. D'AGOSTINO: We would start seeing savings fairly quickly. One quick example, if I could, there are savings associated with not having to build and maintain a heavy metal - unfortunately I can't tell you the exact metal - facility for our casings.

KESTENBAUM: If he had to build that facility, he says it would cost $300 million. The report does not come out and say that building new warheads is a bad idea. And at least one of the authors supports new design. John Foster wrote a personal note to that effect in the appendix. Foster once ran Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Mr. JOHN FOSTER (Former Director, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory): I think it's a prudent thing for this nation to do. To me, it's something that the other nuclear nations have already committed to do. And we seem to be concerned about starting it.

KESTENBAUM: Other nations are refurbishing their warheads, but these would be entirely new warheads. And some critics worry that building them could send the wrong message abroad. The report says that issue deserves a careful look. And some in Congress, meanwhile, are asking, what's the rush? Indiana Democrat Pete Visclosky chairs the subcommittee that oversees the nuclear weapons budget. He says the U.S. is already investing heavily in tools to keep existing weapons working - big lasers and super computers for simulation.

Representative PETE VISCLOSKY (Democrat, Indiana): We have invested about $5.99 billion in that computational aspect. You have three facilities, all of which are over-budget, all of which are not yet completed. But now we're told by the administration we're ought to make a hard turn in the road and pursue a different strategy.

KESTENBAUM: You're going to try and eliminate funding for it?

Rep. VISCLOSKY: We are working on the bill today, and would not predict, but certainly, we have reservations about the program.

KESTENBAUM: It's called the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program. The administration is requesting $89 million for it next year.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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