The U.S. also spent billions of dollars upgrading the security of nuclear weapon storage sites after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, leaving open the question of who is capable of improperly triggering such weapons. "I don't know anyone who believes that the physical security of U.S. nuclear weapons is in doubt," says Ivan Oelrich, FAS's vice president for strategic security programs. The American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) Nuclear Weapons Complex Assessment Committee, a panel of experts convened to evaluate RRW, agrees, finding no reason to believe that such features would "substantially reduce the current reliance on guns, guards and gates" in its April assessment report.
The NNSA, for its part, believes the new features are necessary for the small amount of time such weapons spend being trucked from site to site to eliminate the threat of hijacking. "It gives us an extra measure that we think is prudent, particularly in transportation scenarios," NNSA's Harvey says.
The "Green" Nuclear Warhead
The RRW1 would also eliminate the need for some of the toxic substances in such weapons, such as beryllium, a light metal that hardens alloys but is also carcinogenic and can cause pulmonary disease. "Because of the release of the weight requirement, we are able to use materials that are heavier but more environmentally benign," Livermore's Goodwin says. "We will be able to eliminate an entire process that produces 96 percent radiological toxic waste that has to be buried and replace it with nontoxic waste that is 100 percent recyclable."
"You replace it with something that quite honestly you could eat and be healthy," he adds. "It is in prosthetic body implants. It's about as biologically benign as any material can be." Because the exact specifications remain classified, however, he was unable to reveal exactly what the benign substance is and its exact purpose in the new weapon.
Building a new nuclear warhead would also entail rebuilding the individual nuclear weapon–producing factories, such as Amarillo, Tex.-based Pantex, Los Alamos's TA-55 or Y-12 in Oak Ridge, Tenn., "antiques," as Goodwin calls them because some date from the 1940s. The Bush administration unveiled plans in April 2006 for a new complex to build all the components of new nuclear warheads—dubbed Complex 2030 for the year set for its completion.
"If you are going to life-extend weapons, you need to recreate the enterprise, the production complex of the 1970s, which is an enormous investment in infrastructure," Goodwin says. "Do you want to reinvest in technologies that in many cases are extremely unpleasant? Or do you want to make the smallest possible enterprise to support a very different deterrent stockpile, a much smaller stockpile?"
But the AAAS panel found that substantial upgrades to the current infrastructure would be needed anyway to carry out the RRW program, including at least a doubling of the current assembling and disassembling work at the Pantex nuclear weapon assembly facility as well as a significant increase in the amount of plutonium pits produced at the TA-55 facility.
The Cost of Nuclear
The NNSA asked for $27.7 million for fiscal year 2007 to research the RRW design. That will rise to $88 million in fiscal year 2008, according to the NNSA's then acting administrator Thomas D'Agostino, and a detailed cost of the entire program should be available before the 2009 budget once the engineers have completed their cost estimates. Until such cost estimates are available, there is no way to determine whether RRW and Complex 2030 present a cost savings or an additional financial burden in the long run compared with simply maintaining a diminished portion of the present arsenal.
Production on the W76 replacement could begin by 2012, depending on how much money Congress provides, Sandia's Rottler says. In the bomb makers's preferred scenario, the RRW1 would replace some portion of the W76s that would otherwise be refurbished as the vast majority are dismantled. This swap would likely take decades, according to the AAAS experts, and would require a commitment of "significant new funds."