Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Stars Aligning Against RRW?

Efforts to build a new generation of nuclear weapons suffered yet another setback with the recent release of a declassified executive summary by JASON, an independent scientific advisory body tasked by Congress to review the technical viability of the Bush administration's plans for new nuclear warheads.

The group concluded that the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) "needs further development" before it can be certified and enter the U.S. weapons stockpile without underground nuclear testing. In order for this certification to happen, JASON believes "additional experiments and analyses are needed" to explore possible failures of the nuclear warhead and the new manufacturing processes contemplated for building it.

As noted by CDI’s Todd Fine, “Altogether, the summary findings indicate that many of the enhanced security and safety features and new manufacturing processes used to justify the RRW program could actually add significant uncertainty to the performance of the design. As a result, the program in its current form might produce a warhead less reliable than previous approaches.”

This on top of last year’s Department of Energy report that found that the lifetime of the cores of existing nuclear warheads is at least 100 years, roughly double the Department’s original estimate of 45 years, significantly undercutting claims that the new warheads are needed.

What’s more is that RRW’s biggest advocate, Sen. Pete Domenici, announced last week that he’s retiring at the end of his term next year. A long-time chair (though now ranking member) of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, Domenici made securing funds for RRW one of his top priorities. Even in the event that Domenici’s vacated seat is won by another major cheerleader for the program, such as Rep. Heather Wilson, that candidate would still not have his committee seniority and therefore the same ability to forcefully steer funds towards RRW.

All of this comes as international opposition to RRW continues to mount. As noted by Doug Shaw, most recent evidence of this comes from Malaysian Ambassador Arshad Hussain who was speaking on behalf Non-Aligned Movement signatories and ratifiers of the CTBT last month. Hussain made clear that the group views the development of new nuclear weapons, including RRW, as being “in contravention not only with the undertakings provided by the nuclear weapon States at the time of the conclusion of the CTBT, but also with the Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

Will RRW go the way of the dodo and the nuclear bunker buster? Time will tell, but in the meantime, my fingers are crossed.

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