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28 February 2002
Nature 415, 945
Nuclear-weapons design plan raises fresh proliferation fears
[WASHINGTON] The Bush administration has announced plans for the United States to resume design work on new nuclear weapons for the first time in almost a decade.
The move drew immediate fire from former nuclear-weapons designers, scientific organizations and environmental groups, who say it could undermine efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.
Herbert York, a former weapons designer and arms-control advocate, says the plan has "the wrong kind of focus". York says the nuclear-weapons programme should instead be working to minimize the chances that the weapons will ever be used.
The plan was announced by John Gordon, director of the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA), the branch of the Department of Energy that runs the US weapons programme. "The vision is for small, focused teams to assess military requirements, investigate options and ensure that our Department of Defense partners understand what is and is not possible," Gordon told a hearing of the Senate Committee on Armed Services on 14 February.
Gordon said that, beyond assessing the needs of the armed forces, the programme will start design work on new kinds of nuclear warheads. John Harvey, director of planning at the NNSA, says: "What we're asking these teams to do is to think about what kind of things will be possible in the future."
The emphasis on weapons development is a sharp departure from the approach taken by the Clinton administration, which, from 1992 to 2000, told the weapons laboratories to concentrate on maintaining existing weapons, under the Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship programme (see Nature 387, 541; 1997). The design work during that period was largely restricted to modifying the weapons systems that carried the warhead, according to government statements.
The new plan calls for the establishment of small design teams at three US nuclear weapons laboratories — Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico, and Lawrence Livermore in California. Their initial focus will probably be on small, earth-penetrating warheads, in which the defence department has expressed an interest. The labs have already developed such a weapon, based on existing nuclear warheads.
The NNSA claims that the design teams are being formed largely to help train and recruit scientists and engineers. "A key element of this is to take the scientists who have developed, designed and tested new warheads, and have them transfer their skills to a new generation," says Harvey. Maintaining these skills will allow the United States to respond to future threats, he adds.
But Chris Paine, an analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that keeps a close track of the US weapons programme, says that such skills are unnecessary. "This is no longer a growth industry," he says. Paine predicts that the design effort will serve to undermine non-proliferation, and encourage other countries to develop nuclear weapons of their own.
Richard Garwin, a physicist and former head of research at IBM who has advised successive US governments on nuclear-weapons policy, suggests that the design activity may ultimately lead to a resumption of nuclear testing, which the United States abandoned in 1992.
But Harvey maintains that most of the activity would be restricted to computer simulation and testing of weapon components. "Our intention would be to carry out new development consistent with the president's moratorium on testing," he says. But he concedes that the possibility of future tests remains "an open question".
Nature © Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2002 Registered No. 785998 England.
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