UCS-AAAS Workshop on Nuclear Stockpile Management

June 29, 2012 | 5:54 am
Lisbeth Gronlund
Former contributor

Last November, UCS convened a day-long workshop on the future of DOE’s nuclear stockpile management program, in collaboration with the Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Hudson Institute Center for Political-Military Analysis.

We pulled together a group of twenty people with relevant backgrounds, including active and retired scientists and engineers from Los Alamos Lab, Lawrence Livermore Lab, and Y-12; representatives from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), DOD, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy; independent scientists who are members of the JASON panel that advises the government on nuclear weapons and other security issues; and experts from nongovernmental organizations and elsewhere.

The summary of the meeting is available here.

As one might expect from a group of this sort, there was agreement on some things and disagreement on others. Most notably, participants agreed that the Stockpile Stewardship Program, which the U.S. established after instituting its 1992 moratorium on nuclear explosive testing, has been a resounding success. We know far more now about the stockpile than we ever did while doing full-scale tests.

One interesting disagreement was about the wisdom and utility of modifying the core of the weapons—the so-called “physics package”—to add safety and security features (which guard against accidental detonation and unauthorized use, respectively). Some believed that making such modifications could compromise confidence in warhead reliability and others argued confidence could be maintained by making modifications based on previous designs and using computer simulations. The W76 life extension program (LEP) did not include modifications to the physics package, and neither will the B61 LEP. However, this is an open possibility for all future LEPs.

On a very sobering note, some believed that the current security threat posed by terrorist attackers (including insiders) was already too great to wait for the many decades it would take to modify the warheads themselves. Instead, they argued the U.S. needs to take steps now to improve security, and that it should consider the entire weapons system rather than just the warhead.

For example, it might make sense to employ additional security measures during transportation by DOE or while the weapons are under DOD control, or to make changes to the delivery systems. A piece of good news: last year the House required NNSA to conduct a study “to investigate the feasibility and costs of enhancing the safety of transporting nuclear weapons where possible.” The report, which will be classified, was due on June 1.

Of course, one wonders why the NNSA had to be prompted by Congress to do a study like this in the first place.