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The Nation

New nuke plans are up in the air

A joint effort by two nuclear labs to design the new warhead has yet to advance.

January 23, 2007|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

An effort to design the nation's first new nuclear bomb in two decades has run into delays, as top experts question whether a bureaucratic compromise could hamper the new weapon's effectiveness.

The Bush administration was expected to select a winning design from two proposals in late November, but officials put off a decision and began considering whether competing teams at two national laboratories could collaborate in a joint effort.

Since then, senior officials of the labs in New Mexico and California have met but not reached an agreement, according to lab officials and a senior official at the U.S. Strategic Command, the defense agency that operates the nation's strategic forces.

Over the last year, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national labs have developed designs for the new bomb, known as the reliable replacement warhead. As its name implies, the weapon is supposed to be so reliable that it will not require any underground testing.

A winner was to have been chosen by defense and energy officials in the Nuclear Weapons Council, but by November the selection process had grown complicated and conflicted. The Strategic Command official said defense officials had judged both designs as meeting military requirements.

But as Energy Department officials examined the two proposals, they grew increasingly concerned about the political effect of a decision.

Both labs, Los Alamos in New Mexico and Livermore in Northern California, have always had strong backing by their states' delegations in Congress. What's more, the power shift in Congress put Bay Area Democrats in the leadership on nuclear weapons issues in January.

Livermore had submitted a conservative design that the council judged highly attractive. It was based on an 1980s-era warhead that was tested but then removed from further development. But the new warhead is intended for Navy missiles, and Livermore has not worked with the Navy.

The Los Alamos design also had proponents. But if the award went to New Mexico, Livermore would be left with little on its plate. The Energy Department might have difficulty justifying the expense of two major nuclear laboratories.

To solve those political and organizational problems, the Energy Department, through its National Nuclear Security Administration, sought to explore whether the labs could produce a joint design, Strategic Command officials said.

A letter to the directors of Los Alamos and Livermore asked them to explore a collaborative approach.

No formal decision has been made, however.

"It is still in the works," said Sidney Drell, a Stanford University scientist who has long advised the Energy Department on weapons issues. "People haven't converged on anything."

Meanwhile, other outside advisors, including a scientific board known as the JASON group that consists of top academics from across the nation, are worried about a joint design. The group met earlier this month in La Jolla, but decided it did not have enough technical information to endorse a collaborative approach, according to a member of the group.

Scientists are concerned that a design that mixes and matches pieces of different weapons will undermine the confidence of national leaders in the reliability of the weapon.

"I have heard concerns in the technical community that this is risky, but others say it will work," the Strategic Command official said. "It is a mixed opinion."

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ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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