Tuesday, March 30, 2010

JASON's Report on LEP Stategies Revisited

As the Obama Administration moves slowly toward the formulation of a Nuclear Posture Review, for the past year the nation's nuclear weapons planners have lacked this important NPR guidance. Perhaps one shouldn't blame the Obama Administration too much for its tardiness. Weighty matters of national security are certainly involved here, but ones which could hardly have been at the forefront of the attention of a President who was, only one year ago, just a junior US senator from Illinois.

But, the matter becomes more pressing! Recently, Rep. Michael Turner (Republican, OH) released letters from the directors of the three nuclear weapons laboratories, containing their views of a report by the Jasons, dated Sept., 2009. This was a report of a study commissioned by the NNSA asking for an assessment of the likely future of the Life Extension Program; i.e., the LEP to revitalize the aging nuclear weapons in the US nuclear arsenal.

In the unclassified executive summary accompanying the full classified JASON report, the JASONs say that they believe the LEP to have been successful and that it most likely will continue to be successful. They then point out several problem areas which do need some attention. They do not say, however, that the LEP may fail sometime in the future if these problems are not solved.

Rep. Turner claims to have discovered that the unclassified executive summary to the JASON report is inconsistent with the classified full JASON report. Of course, this is not a claim which can be verfied by those not having access to the classified report. Rep. Turner has asked the Dirs. of the three nuclear weapons labs to offer their opinions on this matter, and of the JASON report generally. In January, 2010 the three Lab Dirs. responded, but Rep. Turner kept their responses confidential until just a few days ago when he released them to the public.

The three Lab Dirs. have somewhat different perspectives on this matter, which may arise from the different mandates of the three labs:

1) The job of SNL has been to develop, test, and produce all of the engineering devices necessary for the operation of all of the nuclear weapons in the US nuclear arsenal. The approach of SNL toward nuclear weapons is a systems engineering approach; SNL has nothing to do with the design, fabrication, assembly and testing of the so-called nuclear explosives package.

2) The job of LLNL has been to design, fabricate, assemble and test the nuclear explosives package part of approximately half of all of the nuclear weapons in the US nuclear arsenal.

3) The job of LANL has also been to design, fabricate, assemble and test the nuclear explosives package part of approximately half of all of the nuclear weapons in the US nuclear arsenal.

4) Whereas the job of SNL remains today as it has always been, the jobs of LLNL and LANL are changing. LLNL is becoming more of a pure research facility, albeit research into areas relating to the science of nuclear weapons. LANL is becoming a facility more attuned to practical matters of pit production, warhead refurbishment, and the furtherance of Pu science and technology.

(Once tested successfully, nuclear weapons are manufactured at separate DOE facilities, but not at SNL, LLNL, or LANL; at least, not so far.)

In his short letter to Rep. Turner, SNL's Dir. T. Hunter pointed out that the JASON report was focussed almost entirely on the nuclear explosives package and did not pertain to matters central to the business of SNL.

In his letter to Rep. Turner, LLNL's Dir. G. Miller suggested that the language of the unclassified executive summary to the JASON report was reasonably well clarified by the material contained in the classified full JASON report. He pointed out too that the LEP program had already experienced serious difficulties, an example of which was the inability to easily remanufacture the critical Fogbank material, necessary for the refurbishment of the W76 warhead. However, he also offered as his opinion that the LEP program had been successful to date and that, as a part of the ongoing stockpile-stewardship program, it would probably continue to be so.

In his letter to Rep. Turner, LANL's M. Anastasio stated that he believed that the unclassified executive summary to the JASON report did not fairly represent the classified full JASON report. He had quite a lot else to say too. He was particularly insistent that, until now, the LEP had only made use of refurbishment strategies, and only these strategies had been tested through actual use. Even so, refurbishment was not always straightforward, as had been well-learned during the W76 refurbishment. Moreover, he said, the important LEP strategies of reuse and replacement had really not yet been attempted and, therefore, had not yet been tested through use. He then described those parts of the LEP, important to him, which had not yet been attempted on any warhead; all of these LEP parts would involve reuse or replacement strategies, at least to some degree. He also quoted material from the classified full JASON report which could be construed as supporting the controversial RRW concept, and which did not offer support of the LEP. Unfortunately, one can not be sure of the meaning of this short quote, because the surrounding contextual material was absent. Finally, Anastasio opined that, although refurbishment had so far been an acceptable LEP strategy, its future was unknowable.

It would seem that Pres. Obama had better take this Nuclear Posture Review bull by the horns. Otherwise, enthusiasts like Rep. Turner may soon begin to accumulate some momentum for their view that only the Reliable Replacement Warhead program makes sense for the future of America's nuclear weapons program.

[Follow-up to this post on April 7, 2010: The new NPR has emerged! See the following post for comments.]

[Follow-up to the follow-up on April 11, 2010: The Los Alamos Monitor carries a joint statement of acceptance of the new NPR from from the three nuclear weapons lab directors, which reads:

“A key responsibility of the three Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration Laboratories – Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories – is to provide technical underpinnings that ensure the safety, security and effectiveness of the United States’ nuclear deterrent. The recently released Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) provides the administration’s policy framework and path forward for ensuring that ‘the nation’s nuclear weapons remain safe, secure and effective.’

“We believe that the approach outlined in the NPR, which excludes further nuclear testing and includes the consideration of the full range of life extension options (refurbishment of existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components from different warheads and replacement of nuclear components based on previously tested designs), provides the necessary technical flexibility to manage the nuclear stockpile into the future with an acceptable level of risk. We are reassured that a key component of the NPR is the recognition of the importance of supporting ‘a modern physical infrastructure – comprised of the national security laboratories and a complex of supporting facilities – and a highly capable workforce with the specialized skills needed to sustain the nuclear deterrent.”

Tom Hunter, SNL Director
George Miller, LLNL Director
Michael Anastasio, LANL Director

The statement also appears on LANL's public website at www.lanl.gov.

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