Going Atomic... Again

America plans its first new nuclear warhead in two decades.

By Alex Stone|Friday, September 01, 2006

Everything has an expiration date—even nuclear warheads. Concerned that the United States' 10,000-strong stockpile of atomic bombs are past their prime, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico are vying to design the first new nuclear bomb in the United States since the W88 warhead in the mid-1980s. The bomb, dubbed the Reliable Replacement Warhead, "is the next logical step," announced the Department of Energy, which sponsors the design competition and is expected to select a winning model for development—pending congressional approval—later this year.

As countries like North Korea and Iran acquire or approach nuclear capability, the program may sound long overdue. And even though the half-life of weapons-grade plutonium is 24,000 years, some experts have suggested that alpha particles emitted as the plutonium decays could crack the pits in the bombs that contain it within 15 years. But careful analysis of old warheads by the Energy Department turned up no signs of weakness, raising questions about the need for new nukes.

To avoid violating international antitesting treaties, the stockpile is kept up to date via a $6 billion-a-year recertification program that tests existing weapons for signs of corrosion. "They take out pits from old weapons and find that all these potential problems are not occurring," explains Ivan Oelrich, a physicist at the Federation of American Scientists. "The consensus is that plutonium pits will be stable for at least 90 to 100 years." What's more, a new warhead might undercut efforts to discourage nuclear proliferation abroad. "It's hypocritical for us to call for other nations to stop their nuclear goals when the United States seems to be pushing its own nuclear program," says Robert Nelson, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "We should be doing everything we can to discourage other countries from developing nuclear weapons."

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