Cold War Relic in Pieces, but Next Generation Looms
June 29, 2006
By Walter Pincus
The Bush administration is expected to announce today 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 the operating space 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.