The U.S. effort to reshape its nuclear arsenal took a big step forward today with the announcement of the winning design for a durable nuclear weapon. The design--chosen by the Pentagon and U.S. Department of Energy--was jointly submitted by Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California.
Two years ago, Congress launched the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which is meant to create a new kind of nuclear bomb optimized for long life rather than maximum destruction. Without underground testing, which the U.S. halted in 1993, scientists are growing worried that the aging U.S. stockpile might not perform if needed. "This is an approach to providing a sustainable nuclear deterrent," says Tom D'Agostino, interim head of the National Nuclear Security Agency. The new bomb would replace the W-88 warhead that currently sits atop missiles in U.S. submarines.
Details are scarce on the classified design, but a few nuggets emerged in briefings today with reporters. The new bomb will feature explosives that can't be detonated by accident or fire, as well as classified security features that render the weapons tough to activate if stolen. Livermore official Bruce Goodwin said that the design his team submitted had a solid "test pedigree" as it was based on a previously tested weapon that was never deployed; Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which was the loser in the competition between the two schemes, chose to use a design that hadn't been tested. But they'll still develop parts for the weapon and peer review the project, says Los Alamos official Glen Mara.
Former Livermore Director Bruce Tarter says he expects the lab to be "buoyed up" by the win. But an expert panel he chairs, chartered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes ScienceNOW, has had certain criticisms of the RRW program, warning that skyrocketing costs of maintaining current weapons and making new ones will put the weapons lab in a "very challenging" position.
Sandia and Lawrence Livermore will spend the next year estimating cost, schedule, and design details for the weapon. The U.S. Congress will make the final decision about whether to build and deploy it.