Saturday, February 9, 2008

NNSA Budget Request Contradicts Earlier Claim on JASON Report

One of the most pressing scientific questions surrounding the debate over the "Reliable Replacement Warhead" program is the issue of warhead certification. It is very likely that the replacement warheads could only be used if they could be certified as reliable without nuclear testing. (Others--myself included--believe that the production of new nuclear warheads is ill-advised even if testing could be avoided). Therefore, the NNSA's plans to introduce a new generation of nuclear warheads hinge on the agency's ability to establish a viable system for determining warhead reliability without ever testing the warhead.

The NNSA's progress on developing such a system was evaluated last October by the JASON Defense Advisory Group, a very well-respected body of independent scientists who advise the government on issues of concern. The JASON report concluded that "the certification plan presented needs further development," and called for a number of improvements.

Jeffrey Lewis of ArmsControlWonk wrote that the JASON report "suggest[s] that NNSA's certification plan might have led to the development of a warhead that could not be certified without testing," and described the report as therefore being "a short-term blow to RRW and a long term blow to NNSA." The NNSA's view of the report--at least their public view--could not have been more different. They issued a press release titled "Independent Scientific Review Confirms Technical Approach to RRW," in which they characterized the JASON report as a pat on the back accompanied by a handful of helpful tips.

Two questions therefore emerge from this debate: First, should we interpret the JASON report as primarily supportive or critical of the NNSA's efforts to date? And second, did the agency genuinely perceive the report as positive, or was the press release simply spin? An examination of the NNSA's 2009 budget request suggests that Jeffrey Lewis was correct in his assessment of the report. In attempting to justify RRW certification funding to Congress (thanks to Nuclear Watch New Mexico for linking directly to this section in their guide to the 2009 NNSA budget), the NNSA does not invoke JASON as proof that their current approach is working. Rather, the budget request treats the JASON report as a powerful critique that will guide future agency activity.

Recent studies, both internal and external to the Department of Energy, have highlighted areas for improvement in how we certify and assess in the absence of nuclear testing…Consistent with the Program Plan established in response to Congressional direction in FY 2008, the Advanced Certification Campaign will address the long-term scientific issues related to the topics raised by the JASON review of RRW. Analysis will be applied to the existing RRW-1 design to accredit a certification concept, addressing JASON issues, that could be applied to warhead life extensions or future modifications. (Emphasis added)
The NNSA's budget request thus largely characterizes the JASON report as one that "highlighted areas for improvement" and "raised issues" with the current approach. This stands in stark contrast with the NNSA's earlier, self-congratulatory public statements on the report. The NNSA might have put on a happy face in press releases, but when addressing Congress they struck a different note, describing the report as a critique, not a complement.

No comments: