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U.S. Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Management: Workshop Summary Report

On November 10, 2011, the Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAA S), the Hudson Institute Center for Political- Military Analysis and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) hosted a workshop to discuss the future of the Department of Energy’s stockpile management program.

The meeting was unclassified and off the record. To allow free discussion, it was carried out under the Chatham House Rule in which statements made during the meeting (such as those reported here) can be cited but not attributed to individual speakers.

In addition to those from the sponsoring organizations, workshop participants included active and retired scientists and engineers from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Y-12 National Security Complex; representatives from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the Department of Defense, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy; independent scientists who are members of the JASON panel that advises the government on nuclear weapons and other security issues; and experts from nongovernmental organizations and elsewhere.

While this report sometimes characterizes views as being held by groups of participants for the sake of simplicity and to avoid identifying individual speakers, participants’ opinions did not fall into simple, easily separable categories.

Key Findings

  1. There was wide agreement that the NNSA and the weapons labs know more about U.S. nuclear weapons and how they operate than ever before—significantly more than was known during the era of nuclear explosion testing. Overall, the stockpile stewardship and management program has been very successful. Consequently, participants agreed that there is no need to resume nuclear explosive testing to maintain the stockpile.
  2. The NNSA and the weapons labs are considering significant modifications to warheads in the current Life Extension Program (LEP ) process, including a proposal for a “common warhead” that would replace two existing warheads. Participants had a range of views on how desirable, achievable, and necessary the proposal was to maintaining the stockpile.
  3. There was wide agreement that the NNSA and the weapons labs face a challenging environment with a budget lower than forecasted, three LEP s in different stages of completion, and plans for major new facilities up in the air. The bottom line was that not everything that NNSA wants to do will get done, and that choices will have to be made. It was noted that some of the LEP s that NNSA is proposing include additional safety and security measures that will cost more than the more basic approaches used in the past. It was suggested that NNSA could better achieve its needs with a reduced budget if it had fewer dedicated budget lines and increased flexibility to reprogram funds.
  4. There was wide agreement that NNSA and the weapons labs need to provide interesting and challenging work to recruit and retain a talented, motivated workforce, but there was significant disagreement over what that entailed. For example, some argued that NNSA’s proposed “exascale” computers, a thousand times more powerful than today’s fastest supercomputers, would be important for retaining capable scientists, whereas others criticized the initiative to develop such a capability as unnecessary and wasteful.
  5. NNSA has not considered the implications of additional reductions in the size of the nuclear stockpile when planning for the future of the weapons complex, at least not in public documents. Some participants thought it would be useful for NNSA to do contingency planning for different future force levels. For example, under New STA RT, the stockpile is on a path to be significantly smaller than it was when NNSA first proposed two major new weapons-related facilities—which was well before the agreement was negotiated.
  6. One of the drivers motivating changes in the nuclear stockpile is the requirement to improve safety and security. Current NNSA policy is to make changes to warheads to enhance their intrinsic safety and security when such changes are “credible and executable.” Some suggested that the best options for increasing safety and security did not involve changes to the warheads themselves but rather to other parts of the nuclear weapons enterprise, such as changes in delivery system characteristics, warhead basing or Department of Defense security measures. Moreover, some also argued that the terrorist threats were serious enough that the United States should make these other changes now rather than waiting the long time it would take to modify warheads.
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