The United States lacks a clear policy on the future of its nuclear weapons forces, complicating an effort to develop a new generation of bombs, a group of highly influential scientists said Tuesday.
At the same time, they said, bottlenecks have developed in the weapons production system, particularly at a Texas assembly plant, that could undermine efforts to produce large numbers of new bombs or even maintain the existing stockpile.
The Energy Department is designing the first new hydrogen bomb in two decades, known as the reliable replacement warhead. But continuing the effort "would present significant challenges," according to the report, which was sponsored by the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science.
The carefully worded report provides a less than rousing endorsement for building the new bomb, said Philip Coyle, a panel member who is senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information and a former deputy director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
C. Bruce Tarter, chairman of the panel and former director of Livermore, said a "lot of work needs to be done before we can introduce something new" to the nuclear stockpile. The panel includes some of the nation's top nuclear weapons and national security experts.
The report warns that weapons labs need more intensive technical reviews of the bomb's predicted reliability, though on balance it said the bomb could be produced and certified without an actual test. Another significant warning in the report involves the decayed condition of the Energy Department's nuclear weapons production plants, particularly the Pantex plant in Texas.
"The biggest problem for the program as it exists today is Pantex," Tarter said. The sprawling plant near Amarillo dismantles retired weapons, services existing weapons and conducts testing to ensure the bombs are reliable. Guards at the high-security facility are currently on strike.
The Energy Department has a plan, called "Complex 2030," to modernize the entire nuclear weapons infrastructure, allowing the production of 125 new bombs per year.
"They don't have anything like a good estimate on the cost of '2030,' " Tarter said. "It is bound to cost a bunch of money."
Until the national security establishment can provide a sound rationale for the new bomb, credible estimates of the cost and the strong backing of the military, the program could end up lacking the political support it will need, the report suggests.