Lab officials excited by new H-bomb project

Eugen Leitl eugen at
Sat Feb 11 03:49:26 PST 2006

Lab officials excited by new H-bomb project
By Ian Hoffman, STAFF WRITER

For the first time in more than 20 years, U.S. nuclear-weapons scientists are
designing a new
H-bomb, the first of probably several new nuclear explosives on the drawing

If they succeed, in perhaps 20 or 25 more years, the United States would have
an entirely new nuclear arsenal, and a highly automated fac- tory capable of
turning out more warheads as needed, as well as new kinds of warheads.

"We are on the verge of an exciting time," the nation's top nuclear weapons
executive, Linton Brooks, said last week at Lawrence Livermore weapons design

Teams of roughly
20 scientists and engineers at the nation's two laboratories for
nuclear-explosive design b Livermore and Los Alamos in New Mexico b are in
a head-to-head competition to offer designs for the first of the new
thermonuclear explosives, termed "reliable replacement warheads" or RRWs.

Designers are aiming for bombs that will be simpler, easier to maintain over
decades and, if they fell into terrorists' hands, able to be remotely
destroyed or rendered useless. Once the designs are unveiled in September, the
Bush administration and Congress could face a major choice in the future of
the U.S. arsenal: Do they keep maintaining the existing, tested weapons or
begin diverting money and manpower to developing the newly designed but
untested weapons?

Administration officials see the new weapons and the plant to make them as
"truly transformative," allowing the dismantlement of thousands of reserve

But within the community of nuclear weapons experts, the notion of fielding
untested weapons is controversial and turns heavily on how much the new bombs
would be like the well-tested weapons that the United States already has.

"I can't believe that an admiral or a general or a future president, who are
putting the U.S. survival at stake, would accept an untested weapon if it
didn't have a test base," said physicist and Hoover Institution fellow Sidney
Drell, a longtime adviser to the government and its labs on nuclear-weapons

"The question is how do you really ensure long-term reliability of the
stockpile without testing?" said Hugh Gusterson, an MIT anthropologist who
studies the weapons labs and their scientists. "RRW is partly an answer to
that question and it's an answer to the question (by nuclear weapons
scientists) of 'What do I do to keep from being bored?'"

The prize for the winning lab is tens, perhaps hundreds of million of dollars
for carrying its bomb concept into prototyping and production. If
manufactured, the first RRW would replace two warheads on submarine-launched
missiles, the W76 and W88, together the most numerous active weapons and the
cornerstone of the U.S. nuclear force.

Altogether, the nation has 5,700 nuclear bombs and warheads of 12 basic types,
plus more than 4,200 weapons kept in reserve as insurance against aging and
failure of the active, fielded arsenal.

Most are 25-35 years old. All were exploded multiple times under the Nevada
desert before U.S. nuclear testing halted in 1992. It is in most respects the
world's most sophisticated nuclear arsenal, and beyond opposition at home to
continued testing, ending testing made sense to discourage other nations from
testing to advance their nuclear capabilities.

Faced by the Soviet Union, Cold War weapons scientists devised their bombs for
the greatest power in the smallest, lightest package, so thousands could be
delivered en masse and cause maximum destruction. Designers compare those
weapons to Ferraris, sleek and finely tuned.

Scientists at the weapons laboratories are laboring to keep the bombs and
warheads in working order, by examining them for signs of deterioration and
replacing parts as faithfully to the original manufacturing as possible. It is
an expensive and not especially stimulating job.

Some worry that an accumulation of small changes could undermine the bombs'
reliability. So far, every year since 1995 directors of the weapons labs and
secretaries of defense and energy have assured two presidents that the weapons
are safe, secure and will detonate as designed.

The new reliable replacement warheads are actually an old idea that 1950s-era
weapons designers called, with some disdain, the "wooden bomb." Bomb
physicists were proud of their racier, more compact designs and figured they
were plenty dependable already. The wooden bomb by comparison was boring.

"They said, 'Well heck, that isn't a challenge to anybody'," recalled Ray
Kidder, a former Livermore physicist who found a chilly reception to proposals
in the 1980s for clunkier, more reliable designs. "It was like saying, 'Well,
why don't you make a Model A Ford.'"

Now the wooden bomb is back in vogue. With fewer, simpler kinds of warheads,
the argument goes, the arsenal could be maintained more inexpensively
and b assuming construction of a factory to turn out the new bombs on demand
b thousands of reserve warheads could be scrapped.

But in a sharp break with the past, the new bombs would never be exploded
except in war. The only button-to-boom tests of the new arsenal would be
virtual b simulated detonations inside a supercomputer.

Today's weaponeers say they've learned enough of the complex physics of
thermonuclear explosives to guarantee the bombs would deliver precise
explosive yields even after decades on the shelf. If military leaders agreed,
the most lethal and final resort of U.S. defenses would be deployed without a
test shot.

Ex-military leaders are split on accepting a new, untested nuclear arsenal.

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre told a House appropriations
committee last year that he thinks a new arsenal will be needed some day. But
he said, "I do believe we should test the new weapons to demonstrate to the
world that they are credible."

Eugene Habiger, the senior-most commander over U.S. nuclear forces as chief of
Strategic Command in the mid-1990s, said he would be inclined to accept the
new weapons.

"The science is pretty well understood," he said.

The Bush administration and weapons scientists say the warheads will not have
new military missions. They will ride on the same bombers and missiles as
today's nuclear explosives and strike the same targets. But administration
officials are talk of eventually wanting features beyond the sizable array of
explosive yields and delivery methods available now: deep earth-penetrating
bombs, enhanced radiation weapons and "reduced collateral damage" bombs with
lower fission radiation.

Designers and executives at Lawrence Livermore are taking a conservative line.
The lab's weapons chief, Bruce Goodwin, talks of starting with
nuclear-explosive designs that are well tested and well understood.

"Our plan is to develop a design that lies well within the experience b and
within what we call the 'sweet spot' b of our historical test base," he said
in a recent statement.

One candidate under consideration as a starting point is the W89, a
200-kiloton warhead designed for a short-range attack missile. It is
well-tested, plus it comes from a long line of well-understood designs and
uses every safety and security feature available at the time.

Yet weaponeers at Los Alamos lab and Brooks, as the head of the National
Nuclear Security Administration, have talked of a more freewheeling design

"This is not about going back to rake over old designs. That's why I've got
two different teams of weapons scientists at two labs working on this," Brooks
said. "There's never been anything tested that will do the sorts of things we
want to do."

Such talk alarms Stanford's Drell.

"How the hell do you make a new design without testing?" he said. "Those kinds
of flamboyant statements worry me because I don't believe we could maintain a
confident stockpile with new designs that haven't been tested."

Some former weapons scientists say the wiser course is maintaining the current
arsenal and boosting its reliability in simple ways, such as adding more
tritium to "sweeten" the hydrogen gases at the very core of the weapon.

"We've got a reliable stockpile. We have a test base for it. We have now in
the last 10 or 15 years far more sophisticated computational abilities than we
had doing these designs originally, so things are extremely well understand in
terms of the performance," said Seymour Sack, once Livermore's most prolific
designer, whose innovations are found in nearly every U.S. weapon. "I don't
see any reason you should change those designs."

Lawmakers say they are watching carefully to make sure the new warheads hew
closely to existing, well-understood designs. But in a recent report on the
new warhead program for the Livermore watchdog group, Tri-Valley CAREs, former
White House budget analyst Bob Civiak said Congress has a poor record of
restraining the weapons design labs from what after all they were built to

"Congress thinks it can allow the labs to design new nuclear weapons but
restrict them to existing designs," he said. "History shows that cannot be the

Contact Ian Hoffman at ihoffman at

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