Congress Considers Scaling Back RRW Following Scientific Report

nuclear warhead
Courtesy of the Department of Defense
Congress is weighing scaling back the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, following the recent release of a report on the role the RRW might play in the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Nuclear Weapons Complex Assessment Committee developed the report, and APS served as an adviser to the AAAS committee while the report was being crafted. Many of the panel members are members of APS.

The report concluded that the RRW could have some benefits, but there is too much uncertainty about the program, including the lack of a long-term plan for the role of nuclear weapons and a determination of future stockpile needs.

“There needs to be a clear statement of U.S. nuclear policy and doctrine in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world,” said Benn Tannenbaum, project director for the Center for Science Technology and Security at AAAS. That concern was also echoed by House and Senate committees.

Since the report was released, the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations and Senate Armed Services committees have voted to reduce funding for the RRW and placed constraints on how those funds could be spent.

The House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee eliminated fiscal year 2008 funding for the RRW, citing some of the points expressed in the AAAS report. The full House followed suit by approving the subcommittee’s bill by a vote of 395 to 13.

To follow up on the RRW issue, the House Armed Services Committee has asked APS and AAAS to examine the role of nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War era more generally. The organizations’ plans are still being formulated.

The nuclear weapons in the current stockpile were designed during the Cold War. For the past 15 years, the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) has maintained those weapons without conducting any testing.

But the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration has (NNSA) expressed concerns about the SSP’s ability to maintain the stockpile in the long term and proposed the RRW program in 2004.

Proponents claim that it will have larger performance margins, be easier to manufacture and maintain and have improved safety and security features.

In March, the DOE selected Lawrence Livermore as the lead laboratory in a design competition for the first RRW. The AAAS study addressed the extent to which the RRW could mitigate some of the risks in the SSP.

In a recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Bruce Tarter, chair of the committee that developed the report and former head of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in  Livermore, Calif., said, “During the conclusion session, the committee said it [the RRW program] could be a prudent hedge and might be a good opportunity. This is the best statement that we can make. I would, and I think most of us would, go ahead and do the cost studies for the RRW. As far as the overall long-term RRW program, we don’t have an opinion because we don’t know what it is.”

The report is online at AAAS's Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. Bruce Tarter’s quote reprinted with permission of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.