Scientists Compete to Design New Nukes
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
NPR's David Kestenbaum examines the competing designs.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Unidentified Man: Five, four, three, two...
KESTENBAUM: 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: Charles McMillan runs the nuclear weapons program as Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
CHARLES MCMILLAN: 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.
BRUCE GOODWIN: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
LINTON BROOKS: 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.
BROOKS: I believe that people will look back at this as one of the best decisions the government has made.
KESTENBAUM: David Kestenbaum, NPR News.
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