New Nuclear Weapons on the Way?

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The Oakland Tribune reported today that lab officials in California are “excited” by the prospect of “designing a new H-bomb, the first of probably several new nuclear explosives on the drawing boards.” This threw me for a loop at first—”Hang on, new nuclear weapons? Who said this was okay, again?”—but I think I get what’s going on. (Although correct me if I’m wrong.)

It’s no secret that the Bush administration has long wanted to develop new types of nukes, including those entirely frivolous “bunker-busters,” for god knows what purpose. In Congress, on the other hand, sensible folks such as Rep. David Hobson (R-OH) have instead called for a “thoughtful and open debate on the role of nuclear weapons,” and have opposed adding new weapons to existing stockpiles. Good luck with that, right? But in 2005 Hobson introduced the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program as a means of finding a middle ground here.

RRW was supposed to allow scientists to “refurbish” our existing nuclear stockpiles and make them more reliable “without developing a new weapon that would require underground testing to verify the design.” Even the “refurbishing” is a bit questionable: our warheads are already plenty reliable, and even warheads labeled “unreliable” by experts can still inflict as much massive death and destruction as anyone could hope for. The current “stockpile stewardship” program set up by the Clinton administration in 1992 has never found any problems with the viability of the U.S. arsenal. (See this Bulletin article for more on this.) Still, RRW would channel the energies of the nuclear establishment away from the task of dreaming up new nuclear weapons and into something relatively harmless. That’s useful.

Anyway, it wasn’t long before Energy Department officials decided to co-opt and expand upon Hobson’s RRW idea, and many administration officials now seem to see it as a means of creating an infrastructure that can eventually churn out new weapons if necessary. All of the sudden, everyone had a different interpretation of what the program actually entailed. Last April, Everet Beckner, deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, told the Tribune, that building new warheads “was not the primary objective [of RRW], but [it] would be a fortuitous associated event.” Oh, fortuitous. Right.

That July, as reported by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the Energy Department was presenting plans before Congress for a completely overhauled nuclear stockpile that would use the RRW program to get there. The department’s report “envisions a stockpile to meet an evolving or changing threat environment” and recommends that “a new version of RRW” be implemented to “form the basis of the sustainable stockpile of the future.”

Now the new explosives currently being “designed” are still, as I understand it, intended to renovate existing stockpiles, and aren’t brand new weapons. In fact, Sen. Pete Domenici explicitly prohibited any funds for the purpose of implementing the recommendations in the Energy Department report.) But the RRW program has slowly and subtly been morphing into a program intended to build new nuclear weapons—despite the fact that this was clearly not Hobson’s original goal. And the Bush administration is continuing to push it in that direction, and presumably hopes it will continue to morph in the future. So that’s something to watch.

More to the point, the overarching assumption here is that we somehow need all these new nuclear weapons. For what, no one can say. It’s pretty clear that nuclear “deterrence” hasn’t stopped North Korea or Iran from going nuclear—or 9/11 for that matter; and the United States’ insistence on augmenting its own arsenal almost certainly undermines nonproliferation efforts. The administration’s desire for “low-yield” nukes—weapons that could conceivably be deployed on the battlefield, and lower the threshold for use—seem completely insane, although Congress seems to have put an end to that little fantasy for now.

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