Thursday, December 17, 2015

NAS Misleads on Peer Review at Nuke Labs

Regarding the recent report of a committee of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine entitled "Peer Review in the Nuclear Weapons Laboratories":

Opinions expressed in this report suggest an unwarranted enthusiasm for nuclear weapons on the part of the NAS committee. Perhaps this bias was imposed by members of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which was the "sponsor" of the committee's work. (See news article in Physics Today, issue of Dec, 2015, quoting NNSA's chief scientist, Dimitri Kusnezov, regarding the NAS report: "How do you take the best out of this in terms of enhancing peer review ... against the backdrop that the decisions are not entirely ours to make ...  .  Because the work we do sits at the intersection of science and policy.")

 In particular, I refer to Conclusion 4 and Recommendation 4 of the committee, which are (quoting from the committee's report):

 "In contrast to the robust state of peer review at the NNSA laboratories, the state of design competition is not robust."

 "In order to exercise the full set of design skills necessary for an effective nuclear deterrent, the NNSA should develop and propose the first in what the committee envisions as a series of design competitions that include designing, engineering, building, and non-nuclear testing of a prototype. The non-nuclear components produced by Sandia should be integrated into the design and fabrication of the prototype. This should be done with the clear understanding that this prototype would not enter the stockpile."

 "The committee is deeply concerned about the state of design competition at all three laboratories. There have been no full design competitions for Nuclear Explosive Packages (NEPs) since the 1992 moratorium on the testing of nuclear explosions. The Department of Defense (DOD) has not asked for any fundamentally new warhead designs, and for a considerable time Congress limited work on new designs."

 However, as the committee makes clear in its report, their advised  new design ought to be inspired by real military requirements, arising from real  military doctrine.

 Furthermore, when the United states became a signatory to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970 it promised to: 1) work to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons in its arsenal; 2) work to reduce the importance of nuclear weapons in its military doctrine; 3) cooperate in negotiating the elimination of nuclear weapons from the arsenals of all nations. Naturally, the success of 3) would depend upon sustainable progress being made toward 1) and 2).

 In this context, it is difficult to see why the US would authorize its national laboratories to proceed toward a new nuclear weapon design, one that was connected to a new military mission, or one that was a "novel design to address a threat", as proposed by the committee in footnote 2, on p4 of its report.

  In fact, Congress's enabling legislation, to which the Committee, alludes (Public Law 112-239, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, Sec. 3144.), asks for guidance on peer review and design competition, as presently practiced at the nuclear weapons laboratories, but does not suggest that the committee consider the question of a new nuclear weapon design.

 It appears that by making its Recommendation #4 the committee has slipped into the field of politics. This may have been an honest blunder on the part of the committee, or a deliberate step in response to a portion of its mandate not included in its report; e.g., explicit instructions received from the NNSA, which was the "sponsor" of the study.

  In my opinion, this attempt by the committee to bolster one side of the ongoing political debate concerning the nature of the work performed by the nuclear weapons laboratories is ill-advised and diminishes the value of technical judgments contained in their report.

 For another sign of the committee's bias, see their remark on p52, under "Summary Comments: "Implementation of the above four recommendations would help ensure that the most important asset - a competent workforce with demonstrated skills and judgment - is being developed and maintained and that all stakeholders (including our adversaries) have confidence in that workforce."

  The committee's suggestion that "our adversaries" would be deterred if we develop new nuclear weapons designs hearkens back to the Cold war, and could only deter the building of trust between nations needed to move toward world-wide nuclear disarmament, as envisaged by the NPT.