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March 5, 2007

National Defense

DOE Plans New Nuclear Bomb

Lawrence Livermore will engineer new weapons

Jeff Johnson

The Departments of Energy and Defense have selected Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) to move ahead on a design for the nation's first new nuclear warhead in almost two decades. Called the reliable replacement warhead (RRW), it is intended to replace or add to the current nuclear stockpile.

The design will utilize technology not available during the Cold War, says Thomas D'Agostino, acting administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the part of DOE responsible for nuclear weapons. "This will permit significant upgrades in safety and security features in the replacement warhead that will keep the same explosive yields and other military characteristics as the current weapons," he continues.

The NNSA weapons labs had developed two designs—one by Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the other jointly by LLNL and Sandia National Laboratory. D'Agostino says the agency selected the LLNL design because it offered "higher confidence" that it could be certified without underground testing. He notes, however, that several features of the LANL design will be developed in parallel with LLNL's, and attributes from both designs may be combined further in the process.

The new weapon is intended initially for nuclear submarine warheads and is being developed with the Navy. However, the basic design is expected to be used for several warhead types. Engineering will take place over the next year; for fiscal 2008, NNSA is requesting some $88 million for design development, and the Navy is seeking another $30 million. The intention is to have the first of the new weapons in production by 2012.

Development of RRW is to be coupled with NNSA's intention of overhauling today's weapons complex with a modern one by 2030.

A host of opponents, from peace groups to former diplomats to members of Congress, are challenging both RRW and the modernization plan.

"This announcement puts the cart in front of the horse," says Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee with DOE oversight. "Although a lot of time and energy went into determining the winning design for a new nuclear warhead, there appears to have been little thought given to the question of why the U.S. needs to build new nuclear warheads at this time".

"We are not going to begin building more nuclear bombs without a serious and open national debate on the policy questions," Visclosky continues. Hearings are set to take place before his committee this month.

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