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Speech

Presented at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars - The Reliable Replacement Warhead Program
Jun 15, 2007
Presented by Thomas D'Agostino, Deputy Administrator, NNSA

I appreciate the opportunity to speak before you today. It’s good to be in a room full of people that share my interest in exchanging views and dialogue on national security issues. I’m here today to talk to you about the future of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, as well as our proposal to replace our aging Cold War stockpile with one that is more secure, safer, easier to maintain and that can be achieved without underground testing.

But first I need to give you a little background.

During the Cold War, nuclear weapon programs were undertaken in reaction to a clear and present danger to the nation’s survival. They involved large, multi-billion dollar, development and production programs for both nuclear weapons delivery systems and the warheads themselves. There was intense and sustained attention and scrutiny to these programs by senior government officials. The uniformed services had a strong and prestigious career path for officers involved in nuclear weapons R&D, planning, and operations. There was sustained, widespread interest and support within Congress’ leadership and rank and file. More generally, there was a reasonably robust bipartisan consensus that nuclear weapons, in large part, were essential to our nation’s security.

In regard to nuclear warhead development and production, the National Nuclear Security Administration and its predecessor agencies at the Department of Energy were replacing the stockpile on a 20 year cycle. Several major warhead system development efforts were underway at each of our national security labs at any one time. The stockpile was very large and diverse with many weapons types. There was a large warhead production complex producing up to 2,000 warheads per year. On average, we were conducting over 20 nuclear tests per year, both to develop new warheads and to assure the safety and reliability of the existing stockpile. In one year, 1962, we conducted almost 100 nuclear tests.

As we near the close of the second decade since the Cold War’s end, not one of the features that I have just described carries over to today. We stopped new warhead production in 1991. We stopped underground nuclear testing in 1992. Our Cold War “design and build” strategy has evolved to one of “preserve and maintain.” We have not designed and developed a new warhead in 20 years. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. nuclear forces have been rightly deemphasized and no longer command the same attention from senior officials, or from Congress. The bipartisan consensus that we had about nuclear forces during the Cold War has evaporated. As a result, some key capabilities the nation has asked us to maintain are in jeopardy. Today, the threats to the United States and its allies are more diffuse and uncertain than they were in the past.

The end of the Cold War was a welcome event, but it has had enormous implications for our nuclear weapons programs and the infrastructure of the nuclear weapons complex. In the years following the end of the Cold War, budgets for nuclear weapons programs were in “free fall”— funding was simply not available to sustain both R&D and production capabilities. A strategic decision was made at the time to sustain and strengthen scientific and technical activities in order to ensure a future capability to certify the stockpile. While this was a reasonable decision given the limited resources, in effect we mortgaged the present to ensure the future.

When the U.S. stopped nuclear testing in 1992, it sought to replace our ability to test with the Stockpile Stewardship Program that emphasized science and technology coupled with a vigorous experimental program as a means to better understand the physics and chemistry of nuclear weapons and their operation. The new program provided enhanced warhead surveillance tools so that we would have a much better chance of detecting the onset of problems in the stockpile. The goal of Stockpile Stewardship has been to predict the effects of aging in our warheads so that we can replace aging components before they degrade overall system reliability. The end of the Cold War provided this opportunity—our focus was no longer on a continuous cycle of fielding new warheads to provide new military capabilities, but on sustaining existing nuclear capabilities.

We call this “life extension”—the process of observing the aging of individual components of warheads and replacing them before they fail. Consider this challenge: Your 1965 Ford Mustang, which you maintain as a collector’s item, has been sitting in your garage for 40 years. You monitor it for such items as a clogged carburetor, corrosion in the engine block and battery discharge, and you replace parts when you deem it necessary. However, you don’t get to start the engine and take it for a test drive. The trick is to assure that if you do need it right away—to take your spouse to the hospital in an emergency—that it would work with certainty. That’s what we have to do in our nuclear weapons life extension program.

By the mid-1990s we had embarked on an ambitious program to acquire the new stockpile stewardship tools—advanced computing, high energy density physics capabilities, and enhanced surveillance capabilities. We have since made tremendous progress in acquiring and using these new capabilities.

In 2001, when this administration took office, it inherited:

  • A strong science base and surveillance program;
  • A safe and reliable, but aging, stockpile, with serious questions about the future; and
  • A plan for warhead life extension. However, it also inherited a deteriorating or non-functioning manufacturing complex characterized by:
  • Protracted underfunding;
  • Inability to produce the necessary plutonium or uranium parts;
  • Inability to produce and extract tritium needed for every weapon;
  • Key facilities falling apart; and 
  • An aging workforce.

Despite problems with the production infrastructure, substantial reductions in the size of the nuclear stockpile were achieved. But, because we couldn’t produce warheads when and if they were needed—mainly as a hedge for technical problems in the stockpile—we still had to maintain a much larger stockpile than desired. What we needed was a functioning and responsive manufacturing complex so we could further reduce the size of our stockpile.

In recent years, we have made substantial progress including initial steps to correct some of these problems. The goal is to have a smaller nuclear weapons complex, which is also more secure, more efficient, safer for the workers and environment, and more cost effective. This vision is called “Complex 2030.” To move us towards this vision:

  • We restored tritium production and extraction at the Savannah River Site;
  • We restored key uranium operations at Y-12;
  • We are implementing plans to develop an interim plutonium pit production capacity of 30-50 pits per year at Los Alamos by 2012;
  • We are reducing the number of sites with large quantities of special nuclear materials; and
  • We are dramatically accelerating the dismantlement of retired warheads.

In 2003, we “took stock” of 10 years of our stockpile stewardship efforts and came to some important conclusions. The main conclusion was that as we continue to draw down the stockpile, we have become concerned that our current path may pose an unacceptable risk to maintaining high confidence in Cold War system performance over the long-term.

With every life extension program we do on a weapon, we slowly move further and further away from the designs that were certified with underground nuclear tests. These inevitable accumulations of small changes over the extended lives of these highly-optimized and complicated systems, has given rise to concerns about the reliability of the weapons over time. While we are confident that today’s stockpile is safe and reliable, it is only prudent to explore alternative means to ensure stockpile reliability over the long term. After all, we are dealing with nuclear weapons and any error or slight uncertainty is an unacceptable risk.

This is the impetus for our work on the Reliable Replacement Warhead. With RRW, we will be able to be confident in our nuclear weapons for the long term, by making them more secure, safer and more reliable.

Another driver for RRW was the realization after the September 11th terrorist attacks that the security threat to our nuclear warheads had fundamentally changed. The security features in today’s stockpile are commensurate with technologies available during the Cold War and with threats from that time. Major enhancements in security are not easily available through the current method of retrofits to the legacy stockpile and so we need a way to incorporate modern security technology into the stockpile. It’s the same idea as replacing your home security system from the 1960s with one from 2007.

More broadly, the RRW program is examining the feasibility of providing replacement warheads for the legacy stockpile. This effort will allow the design of replacements that are safer and more secure, eliminate environmentally dangerous materials and increase what are called “design performance margins,” – or simply put, they will be over-designed to ensure that they will work – thus guaranteeing long-term confidence in reliability.

RRW, therefore, will allow us to transform to a much more efficient and responsive, much smaller, and, we believe, less costly nuclear weapons infrastructure.

We are often asked: If today’s stockpile is safe and reliable, why start on RRW now? Why not wait a few years when you know more? The need to start now is driven by two basic reasons. First, the introduction of the RRW system provides the benefit of additional diversity in the nation’s sea-based nuclear force, which we need in case problems are discovered with a whole type of warhead or bomb. RRW will replace a portion of W76 warheads deployed on the Trident system. That particular warhead comprises a high percentage of our planned future strategic nuclear deterrent force under the Moscow Treaty. Although we have not uncovered any problems with the W76, it is prudent to hedge against a catastrophic failure of that system by introducing a diverse warhead design into the submarine launched ballistic missile force.

Second, the RRW effort has provided an opportunity to ensure the transfer of nuclear design skills from the generation that honed these skills with nuclear testing to the generation that will replace them. In five years, nearly all of that older generation will be retired or will have passed away.

While some would argue that the RRW program undermines U.S. nonproliferation goals, we see the overall RRW strategy as having positive implications for nonproliferation.

A major nonproliferation objective of the United States is to prevent rogue states and terrorist groups from acquiring weapons of mass destruction or the materials to make WMDs on their own. U.S. nuclear modernization will not increase incentives for terrorists to acquire such weapons—those incentives are already high and are unrelated to U.S. nuclear capabilities. Terrorists are driven by hatred and ideology, not by the U.S. replacing its nuclear weapons stockpile with a safer, more secure and easier to maintain weapon.

RRW is not likely to have any impact on rogue states either. These nations continue proliferating, operating secret nuclear programs, or both – all independent of what the U.S. does with its nuclear program.

Over the past decade we have seen very significant reductions in the numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons, reductions in the alert levels of nuclear forces, no U.S. nuclear testing or production of nuclear materials for weapons, and very little U.S. nuclear modernization. There is absolutely no evidence that these developments have caused North Korean or Iranian leaders to slow down their covert programs to acquire capabilities to produce nuclear weapons.

I should add that the extension of the U.S. nuclear deterrent to NATO and to other allies has been a very important tool for nonproliferation. It has eliminated the need for allies to develop and field their own nuclear forces, some of which are technically capable of doing so.

It’s important to keep in mind that the RRW is designed to replace the current, aging warheads. It is not new in the traditional arms control or military sense. It provides no new military capability, and will have the same fit, form and function as our current weapons. It will not increase the size or power of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It will simply allow us to deploy a safer, more secure design that gives us greater long-term confidence in the reliability of our stockpile, rather than having to depend on our old, outdated Cold War arsenal.

As I said before, RRW is being pursued under the firm requirement that it will not need to be tested for certification to become part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This reinforces our commitment to maintaining our moratorium on underground nuclear testing. On the other hand, as the older weapons in our current stockpile age further, we cannot guarantee that they will not need to be tested to maintain confidence in their safety and reliability.

The RRW will also facilitate further reductions in the U.S. nuclear stockpile. U.S. accomplishments in this area have already been substantial, if largely overlooked. Whole classes of nuclear weapon delivery vehicles -- short-range and intermediate range nuclear missiles -- have been virtually eliminated.

Last year, NNSA announced the dismantlement of the last remaining W56 nuclear warhead and we completed dismantlement of two modifications of the B61 nuclear bombs.

And just last week, we announced confirmation that our rates for dismantling nuclear weapons has shot up more than 50 percent over last year’s dismantlement rate. That was our goal we set for ourselves, and some people doubted we could or would do that. The great news is that with four months left in the fiscal year, we will do even more dismantlements and the rates will go much higher.

Because of the Moscow Treaty signed by Presidents Bush and Putin, the number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons will go from over 10,000 at the peak of the Cold War, to a range of 1700-2200 by 2012. In addition, based on a decision and further direction by President Bush in 2004, the overall U.S. nuclear arsenal will be at its lowest level since the 1950s in just five years.

Our near-term strategy for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex includes an increased rate for dismantling warheads that are retired from the stockpile. Warhead dismantlements ensure that our plans are not misperceived by other nations as “restarting the arms race.” Indeed, our commitment to a smaller stockpile is made concrete by our record of accelerated dismantlements.

Moreover, the RRW will give us greater confidence in the reliability of our weapons. This increased confidence will reduce the need for large numbers of spare warheads and allow us to take the U.S. stockpile to still lower levels.

The ability to reduce our stockpile even further with RRW keeps it consistent with our international obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty.

Let me conclude by summarizing my basic message:

  • To meet its own security needs and those of its allies, the United States will need a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future. We will achieve this with the smallest nuclear stockpile consistent with our nation’s security. 
  • We see increased risk, absent nuclear testing, in assuring the long-term reliability of today’s stockpile of legacy warheads left over from the Cold War.
  • The infrastructure that supports the stockpile is very old and is not sufficiently “responsive” to technical problems in the stockpile.
  • Our task is to ensure that the U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise, including the weapons and supporting infrastructure, fully meet the long-term national security needs of this country.
  • Our approach is to develop replacement warheads for the legacy stockpile that are more reliable, more secure and safer.
  • Our goal is to transform our nuclear stockpile and modernize our infrastructure so we can reduce the stockpile even further.
  • We intend to accomplish all of this with the smallest stockpile necessary without requiring underground nuclear tests.

Thank you. I’ll be happy to take questions.