Today's date:
Spring 2007

Nuclear Weapons Are Back at Center Stage

Michael May is a director emeritus of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, America's top nuclear weapons lab. He headed the lab from 1965 to 1971, at the height of the Cold War. Dr. May is also professor emeritus in the Stanford University School of Engineering and a senior fellow with the Institute for International Studies at Stanford.

Palo Alto, Calif. — The United States and other countries would be safer in a world without nuclear weapons. But some current policies of the US, Russia, France and Great Britain make that goal more distant. In particular, the new US program to replace some of the nuclear weapons in its stockpile with new, more durable weapons has drawn criticism and provoked controversy.

The new program may well be justified by technical considerations, but it is part of an overall approach that moves nuclear weapons back to center stage. That approach extends the role of nuclear weapons and is partly justified by the fear of weapons-of-mass-destruction terrorism. Russia, France and Great Britian have adopted similar approaches and are modernizing their nuclear forces at the same time as they and the US are reducing them.

These changes could make it harder for the US and others to push for denuclearizing dangerous neighborhoods. New US nuclear weapons might not affect the decisions of states such as Iran, North Korea and others that feel very threatened by the US; the threats those states face are largely conventional. But other nations that are threatened by terrorism and may be considering going nuclear, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for example, must be affected by the example of major powers extending the role of their nuclear weapons.

In this context, is the US' new program warranted?

According to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, as it is formally called, is part of a strategy to reduce the number of weapons and avoid the need for nuclear testing.

The NNSA has outlined the specific goals of the program. Let's look at those goals, then see how the program fits into a broader nuclear and non-proliferation strategy.

Goal 1: Assure long-term confidence in the reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile.

Nuclear weapons age and may need to be replaced. They cannot usually be built exactly the way they were before. Small changes can accumulate and diminish the performance or make it uncertain, and no one can be sure how long this might take. Replacements today are made through a lifetime extension program, as the need arises. A more robust design with greater performance margins and more stable materials could improve long-term reliability.

Goal 2: Enhance security and prevent use by terrorists, rogue nations or criminal organizations through state-of-the-art technology, and improve the safety of the stockpile.

Present stockpile weapons are secure and safe, as the record shows. Introducing insensitive high explosive (IHE) in all the weapons (instead of some as is currently the case) would make safety less dependent on operational procedures (though it could raise performance questions). IHE is more resistant to accidents and fires but has different energy characteristics from some earlier explosives.

Goal 3: Help develop a nuclear weapons infrastructure that is more responsive to future national security needs, and enable a reduced stockpile size by increasing confidence in the infrastructure to produce weapons if they are needed.

According to NNSA plans, the manufacturing methods for an RRW would be designed to be much more reproducible and yield higher quality products. That is needed, as fabrication processes for present weapons can be difficult to reproduce. In addition, the planned infrastructure would be more resilient.

Goal 4: Utilize and sustain critical nuclear weapons design and production skills. Technical skills cannot be maintained without some challenging goal, and the RRW can provide one. This problem faces the entire defense research-and-development establishment: The US lacks peer competitors, not only in the nuclear weapon area but in other advanced military technical areas, so new projects are difficult to defend; yet skills cannot be maintained without new projects.

Goal 5: Decrease the likelihood that a nuclear test will be needed.

This goal is the most problematic. NNSA argues that unforeseen major deficiencies in the weapons being replaced could necessitate testing a replacement. But so could unforeseen problems in designing or maintaining the new warhead itself. No matter how good the experimental and theoretical tools are, a new design may need testing.

In short, given that the US and other states retain a nuclear stockpile, the Reliable Replacement Warhead program and supporting infrastructure improvements seem warranted, although there is no guarantee its goals can be achieved without testing.

But it does not help us with a bigger question, namely, how to assure nuclear security in an age where there is little security otherwise.