Dazed and Confused by RRW - Part 1


If you've been following the debate over the Reliable Replacement Warhead program (RRW) and if you haven't, you should be there's a good chance that you're confused over how this program is supposed to go about revolutionizing the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. Is RRW a "program to improve the reliability [and] longevity... of existing weapons and their components"? Or is it an "enabler" for a long-term goal of building "new (or replacement) warheads"?Trinity1.jpgIf you're confused, you're not alone. Even the Congressional Research Service dryly observed that "many find RRW to be confusing because it is a new program and descriptions of it have changed." (The CRS study linked here, by the way, is an absolute must-read for anyone who's interested in these issues.)Just last week, Stephen I. Schwartz wrote here on Defense Tech that even as controversy still swirls over the first RRW warhead program, the labs are developing plans for as many as three other RRW warheads and that the end-result of RRW will be not a fixed, long-lived warhead design, but rather "steady-state production of warheads for deployment."In order to understand what RRW is, and what it might evolve into, its important to take a step back and look at where the U.S. stockpile is today, and how it got there. Over the next few days, Im going to do my best to summarize the history of stockpile stewardship in the U.S. and the debates which led to the creation of RRW (which I wrote about in greater detail here). Then we can get to the meat of what RRW is all about.Below the jump the Cold War ends, and Stockpile Stewardship is (re)born.

During the Cold War, high turnover was the key to maintaining confidence in the reliability of the nuclear stockpile. New weapons were constantly being designed, built, tested and added to the stockpile, allowing older weapons to be retired, or relegated to reserve status; warheads rarely accumulated more than a couple of decades of shelf life, at most.Once a production run of warheads had made it into the stockpile, odds were slim that any of the warheads in the run would be tested again. The exception to this rule were the relatively small number of so-called "stockpile confidence tests" which took place during the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, and the primary stages which were occasionally taken from stockpile warheads for use in tests of new weapons concepts.Warhead2.jpgWhile stockpiled warheads were not often put through further nuclear tests, they were routinely sampled for disassembly, thorough inspection and all sorts of non-nuclear (or above-ground) testing. This activity, known as stockpile surveillance, was intended to catch production defects and aging-related deterioration to any of the warhead's 3000 components. Most of these components are located outside of the warhead's nuclear subsystem, so their full range of functions could be tested without a nuclear test.The knowledge base developed over forty years of stockpile surveillance (beginning with the introduction of sealed-pit designs in the late 1950s) laid the foundations for the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP), which was officially born in 1994.Three events which took place at the end of the Cold War led to the creation of SSP. In 1989, the Rocky Flats site in Colorado, where all the plutonium "pits," or triggers, in the stockpile had been produced, was shut down after years of egregious health and safety violations. In 1992, shortly before its dissolution, the USSR declared a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing. In response, Congress passed a similar testing moratorium, and the President George H. W. Bush announced an indefinite moratorium on the introduction of new weapon designs into the stockpile. The era of high stockpile turnover was over, and the Stockpile Stewardship Program was born.The Stockpile Stewardship Program was organized by Congress from the Department of Energy's existing stewardship activities in the 1994 Defense Authorization Act. The program was part of a new policy aimed at keeping the nation's bomb-making skills and facilities in suspended animation in case a new nuclear arms race were to break out.In keeping with this policy, resources which were cut from bomb-making and nuclear testing activities were channeled to the three activities necessary for stockpile stewardship: improving the nuclear complex's understanding of the science of warhead performance and aging (known as "stockpile science"), keeping an eye out for signs of deterioration as warheads age ("stockpile surveillance") and repairing problems which may arise ("warhead life extension").You can find more details about these three activities in the paper I mentioned earlier (including some worrying reports about the problems SSP has had coordinating the different activities).In the next post, Ill be focusing on warhead life extension, and looking at the debates over how to replace old warhead components as an example of the technical controversies behind the scenes of the RRW debate.- Haninah Levine

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