Cold War is over – a colder war is in store

The problem of nuclear disarmament has become one of the most important topics of recent international discussions. Today the most intense confrontation in the field of nuclear arms reduction is between Russia and the USA. Both countries have large amounts of nuclear warheads, both realize the necessity of disarmament and both don’t want to lose their dominance.

Today the Bush administration is expected to announce that it has dismantled the last of the most powerful nuclear missile warheads left over from the Cold War.

At the same time, however, a Senate subcommittee has added $10 million to next year's budget to fund a design competition for the second warhead in a new generation of U.S. nuclear weapons.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has increased by 50 percent the rate at which it is dismantling older weapons in the nuclear stockpile, which has about 5,000 weapons.

But Congress and the administration are pressing ahead with the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which will guarantee production in the next decade of fewer but more reliable and secure nuclear warheads and bombs.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) said yesterday that his Appropriations subcommittee had added $35 million to the fiscal 2007 budget "to accelerate the RRW design activities, including $10 million to initiate a second RRW design competition."

The panel's draft report says the second RRW design is proposed "to ensure that our strategic forces have at least two different certified RRW warheads" as a hedge against failure in any one system.

The nation's two nuclear weapons design centers, the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, are competing to design the first RRW. The nuclear security agency is scheduled to make a choice late this year. A second RRW design competition may provide an opportunity to the losing lab.

The warhead at the center of today's announcement, the W-56, was put into operation in 1963 atop the Minuteman I intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). It had the explosive power of 1.2 megatons or "roughly 100 times greater" than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, according to Thomas B. Cochran, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's nuclear program.

The W-56 was retired in 1991, when the last Minuteman II ICBMs were taken out of their silos during the George H.W. Bush administration. However, it was not until 1999 that the government started dismantling the first W-56, a slow and precise process because of aging parts and nuclear materials, according to NNSA Deputy Administrator Thomas P. D'Agostino.

"It takes anywhere from a few weeks to a month for each warhead if there are no problems," D'Agostino said. He noted that "they are difficult to take apart because they were not designed to be dismantled."

At the peak, about 1,000 W-56 warheads existed. In 1986, when the warhead was more than 20 years old, a partial test was conducted and it was found to be still reliable.

D'Agostino said NNSA is planning to put more emphasis on dismantling retired nuclear weapons, a process that in the past decade has provided a steady amount of work for the Pantex facility outside Amarillo, Tex., where weapons are assembled and disassembled. Up to now, the programs to refurbish operational warheads have used up almost all theoperatingspace at the facility. But with that program declining, dismantling of retired weapons can increase.

In another step related to reduction of operational weapons, the subcommittee cut $82 million from the budget because the Defense Department has decided that it will not continue a program that would have extended the life of W-80 nuclear warheads carried by several hundred submarine- and air-launched cruise missiles, The Washington Post reports.

In the FY2006 Defense Authorization bill, the Atomic Energy Defense Act (division D of Public Law 107-314) was amended by inserting after section 4204 (50 U.S.C. 2524) the following new section:

"SEC. 4204a.


(a) Program Required.--The Secretary of Energy shall carry out a program, to be known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which will have the following objectives:

(1) To increase the reliability, safety, and security of the United States nuclear weapons stockpile. […] "

US nuke makers have welcomed the news with great excitement. Scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have engaged in an intense competition to design the first new American nuclear weapon in 20 years.

The new weapon should be more reliable, safer and more secure. US nukes are based on a two steps design. A primary device - a Plutonium fission device - ignites a secondary process- a thermonuclear reaction. Should the first step fall short of its expected power, the bomb would release only a fraction of its nominal power.

In order to ensure the reliability of the first step, one may expect the new design to incorporate more explosives, plutonium and tritium to ensure the ignition of the secondary device.

Safety will be improved by insuring that a single explosive trigger can not lead to nuclear explosion. Similar guaranties will be sought against accidental fire.

Security will surely be one of the most important issues. US nuclear scientists will try hard to ensure that the weapon can be ignited solely through totally safe encrypted codes and that all attempts to circumvent them will result in the bomb being disabled. Any stolen or lost weapon would therefore be unusable. Moreover, it could be located by satellite and rapidly retrieved.

"We are setting the goal of absolute control – that you always know where the weapon is and what state it is in and that you have absolute control over its state," said John B. Woodard, executive vice president at SANDIA. "People will say you can break the bank achieving that goal, but it is the right goal to set," he added.

Influent veterans of nuclear arms development strongly opposed the RRW program. According to them, building these new weapons will trigger another arms race with Russia and China.

Moreover, it fully undermines the US arguments to stop nuclear developments in Iran and North Korea.

Even worse, it would likely restart nuclear tests. The last U.S. underground test was conducted in Nevada in 1992. The US has since imposed a moratorium on new testing, reports.

Source: agencies

Prepared by Alexander Timoshik

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Author`s name Alex Naumov