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 boards.
If they succeed, in perhaps 20 or 25 more years, the United States
would have an entirely new nuclear arsenal, and a highly automated factory 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 laboratory.
Teams of roughly 20 scientists and engineers at the nation's two laboratories
for nuclear-explosive design — Livermore and Los Alamos in New Mexico
— are in a head-to-head competition to offer designs for the first of
the new thermonuclear explosives, termed "reliable replacement warheads"
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
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