Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Depending on Forty Year Old Engineering

America’s nuclear weapons are the big psychological boogeymen in international power politics. The biggest of the big sticks the world believes we can pull out of the bag if needed. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) charged with maintaining the arsenal, however, points out that none of these thirty to forty year old machines have been tested in the last fifteen years. Everyone just assumes that flipping the switch will still produce a big boom.

CRS Report for Congress: Almost all warheads in the current stockpile were built in the 1970s and 1980s. They require ongoing surveillance and maintenance because their components deteriorate. … NNSA is concerned that it will become increasingly difficult to maintain high confidence in current warheads for the long term with LEP. Reflecting this concern, Congress initiated the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program in the FY2005 Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 108-447) “to improve the reliability, longevity and certifiability of existing weapons and their components.”

Nuclear weapons will continue to play a key role in U.S. security policy for many decades. Yet the Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the Department of Energy (DOE) agency in charge of the nuclear weapons program, have raised concerns that maintaining current weapons, which date from the Cold War, will become increasingly difficult.

At issue for Congress is how best to maintain the nuclear stockpile so that it will retain, for many decades, capabilities that political and military leaders deem necessary. There are three main options: (1) extend the service lives of current warheads without nuclear testing; (2) develop, build, and deploy a new generation of warheads without testing to replace the current stockpile; or (3) resume nuclear testing, which the United States suspended in 1992, as a tool to help maintain existing warheads or develop new ones. … This report does not consider a fourth option, abolition of U.S. nuclear weapons, as it has garnered no support in Congress or the Administration.

The current debate within the bureaucrats is between continual maintenance of old stuff via the Life Extension Program (LEP), or adoption of devices with technology newer than Jimmy Carter era nuclear know how. The Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program is actively designing a new generation of fission devices. There seems to be great confidence that computer simulated prototypes don’t need real world testing, and hopefully this can remain a debating game between engineers with microprocessors and bureaucrats with federal budgets.

Road tripping down south tomorrow. Mississippi River crossings at St. Louis and Memphis. I hope that Carter era engineering is good for another four days.