Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Beyond Bunker Busters: Toward a New Generation of U.S. Nuclear Warheads

I wrote earlier this week on the difficulties of achieving universal nuclear disarmament. Well, as it turns out Tuesday's Los Angeles Times ran a piece on one aspect of the emerging nuclear weapons regime discussed in that post. The Times article, "Rival U.S. Labs in Arms Race to Build Safer Nuclear Bomb," looks at the scientific research competition between the Bay Area's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The two labs are competing for the contract to build the new generation of American nuclear weapons. Here's the background:

The program to build the new bomb, known as the "reliable replacement warhead," was approved by Congress in 2005 as part of a defense spending bill. The design work is being supervised by the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is part of the Energy Department. The laboratories submitted detailed design proposals in March that ran more than 1,000 pages each to the Nuclear Weapons Council, the secretive federal panel that oversees the nation's nuclear weapons. A winner will be declared this year. If the program is implemented, it would require an expensive remobilization of the nation's nuclear weapons complex, creating a capacity to turn out bombs at the rate of three or more a week. Proponents of the project foresee a time when nuclear deterrence will increasingly rest on the nation's capacity to build new bombs, rather than on maintaining a massive stockpile. The proposal comes as Russia and the United States have agreed to further reduce nuclear stockpiles. The Moscow Treaty signed in 2002 by President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin calls for each country to cut inventories to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads by 2012. Without the reliable replacement warhead, U.S. scientists say the nation will end up with old and potentially unreliable bombs within the next 15 years, allowing adversaries to challenge U.S. supremacy and erode the nation's so-called strategic deterrent. The new bomb "is one way of ensuring that our capability is second to none," said Paul Hommert, a physicist who heads X Division, the Los Alamos unit that built the first atomic bomb during World War II. "Not only today, but in 2025."
As noted in the article, critics of the new program say that deployment of a new class of weapons would renew the arms race and delegitimize the nuclear test-ban regime. Read the whole thing, in any case, and be sure to check out the article's trick interactive graphics explaining how the new warheads would work.

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