Report: Weapons will last a long time

-A A +A

Unclassified summary feeds public debate

By Roger Snodgrass

The nuclear weapons stockpile can be relied upon with confidence for years to come through current stewardship programs, like those at Los Alamos National Laboratory, but the program itself needs strengthening and focus.

A prestigious panel of defense analysts known as JASON has issued a much-anticipated report on the aging of nuclear warheads that is already the subject of contention.

The report essentially sanctions the current process for certifying nuclear warheads but has implications for future policy and budgets.

The conclusions appear to undercut the need for new nuclear weapons to replace the deteriorating fleet of older designs, a set of upgrades has been a high priority for the nuclear weapons complex for most of this decade.

“Jason finds no evidence that accumulation of changes incurred from aging and LEP’s (Lifetime Extension Programs) have increased risk to certification of today’s deployed nuclear warheads,” the Report says in the lead bullet of an unclassified executive summary.

The Lifetime Extension Program under review is a centerpiece of the present stockpile stewardship program that includes continuous surveillance of the several weapons types and then fixing any problems.  JASON describes “refurbishment” very generally as a process of replacing individual warhead components “before they degrade, with components of (nearly) identical design or that meet the same ‘form, fit and function.’”

This process goes on without conducting nuclear tests, but the object is to guarantee the reliability of the weapon.

“Lifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence by using approaches similar to those employed in LEP’s to date,” according to the JASON’s second bullet

A LANL spokesperson referred calls to National Nuclear Security Adiministration headquarters in Washington this morning.

NNSA commissioned the report, which was transmitted to Congress Thursday, according to an NNSA announcement. A prepared statement thanked JASON for the report, but distanced the nuclear weapons agency from the unclassified description.

“While we endorse the recommendations and consider them well-aligned with NNSA’s long-term stockpile managing strategy, certain findings in the unclassified Executive Summary convey a different perspective on key findings when viewed without the context of the full classified report,” said NNSA’s spokesman Damien LaVera in a prepared statement.

“The full report addresses them comprehensively and validates our basic scientific approach to warhead life extension programs, specifically our commitment to evaluating each weapon system on a case-by-case basis and applying the best technological approach from a spectrum of options,” he said.

A public-interest group, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a press release Thursday in response to the JASON study, emphasizing the adequacy of the current stockpile.

“The new scientific report should be the final nail in the coffin for proposals to build new nuclear weapons,” said Stephen Young, a senior analyst at UCS, in the announcement. “The report finds that we can maintain our nuclear weapons indefinitely by simply continuing to do what we are already doing.”

Nuclear Watch New Mexico greeted the findings as a positive result and commented in a press release on their preference for a “curatorship” approach for the nuclear stockpile, “in which existing warheads are kept as close to the original designs as possible” in order to avoid introducing changes that could affect reliability.

A few findings in the JASON document are explicitly critical of the stockpile stewardship program

“Continued success of stockpile stewardship is threatened by lack of program stability, placing any LEP strategy at risk,” the authors wrote.

“The surveillance program is becoming inadequate. Continued success of the stockpile requires implementation of a revised surveillance program,” they added as a concluding concern.