Sunday, February 06, 2005

US Redesigning Atomic Weapons

US Redesigning Atomic Weapons US Redesigning Atomic Weapons
Posted by: Mike_Wallace on http://PEJ.org Sunday, February 06,

Peace American scientists have begun designing a new generation of nuclear arms meant to be sturdier and more reliable and to have longer lives. Critics say this could needlessly resuscitate the complex of factories and laboratories that make nuclear weapons and could possibly ignite a new arms race.


American scientists have begun designing a new generation of nuclear arms meant to be sturdier and more reliable and to have longer lives. Critics say this could needlessly resuscitate the complex of factories and laboratories that make nuclear weapons and could possibly ignite a new arms race.

US Redesigning Atomic Weapons

By WILLIAM J. BROAD
The New York Times
February 7, 2005

Worried that the nation's aging nuclear arsenal is increasingly fragile, American scientists have begun designing a new generation of nuclear arms meant to be sturdier and more reliable and to have longer lives, federal officials and private experts say.

The officials say the program could help shrink the arsenal and the high cost of its maintenance. But critics say it could needlessly resuscitate the complex of factories and laboratories that make nuclear weapons and could possibly ignite a new arms race.

So far, the quiet effort involves only $9 million for warhead designers at the nation's three nuclear weapon laboratories, Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia. Federal bomb experts at these heavily guarded facilities are now scrutinizing secret arms data gathered over a half century for clues about how to achieve the new reliability goals.

The relatively small initial program, involving fewer than 100 people, is expected to grow and produce finished designs in the next 5 to 10 years, culminating, if approval is sought and won, in prototype warheads. Most important, officials say, the effort marks a fundamental shift in design philosophy.

For decades, the bomb makers sought to use the latest technologies and most innovative methods. The resulting warheads were lightweight, very powerful and in some cases so small that a dozen could fit atop a slender missile. The American style was distinctive. Most other nuclear powers, years behind the atomic curve and often lacking top skills and materials, settled for less. Their nuclear arms tended to be ponderous if dependable, more like Chevys than racecars.

Now, American designers are studying how to reverse course and make arms that are more robust, in some ways emulating their rivals in an effort to avoid the uncertainties and deteriorations of nuclear old age. Federal experts worry that critical parts of the arsenal, if ever needed, may fail.

Originally, the roughly 10,000 warheads in the American arsenal had an expected lifetime of about 15 years, officials say. The average age is now about 20 years, and some are much older. Experts say a costly federal program to assess and maintain their health cannot ultimately confirm their reliability because a global test ban forbids underground test detonations.

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