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07 October 1999

 
  

Stockpile Stewardship Tests Weapons By Computer, Not Explosions

(Energy Secretary Richardson stresses safety issues) (1,230)
By Susan Ellis
Department of State Washington File Writer

Washington -- The debate in the Senate Armed Services Committee
October 7 focused on the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP), a
critical part of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which uses
science-based computer technology rather than actual nuclear tests to
assess the condition of nuclear weapons. The debate pitted Department
of Energy (DOE) Secretary Bill Richardson and the top scientists at
nuclear laboratories throughout the United States, against Republican
Senators who oppose the treaty.

Using a medical analogy for the SSP, one scientist said the nation's
nuclear weapons will have "checkups" every year using computer
analyses to determine whether they are still functional and,
therefore, do not require actual testing by explosion. Any old or
malfunctioning parts would be replaced with new ones.

Republicans mainly voiced the opinion of the committee chairman,
Senator John Warner (Republican, Virginia), who used another analogy
-- that of servicing an automobile. He said it was all very well to
replace a car's parts if they don't work, but one would not know
whether the car would actually start without first turning on the
ignition.

Richardson said DOE scientists "go through a very laborious process"
every year with stockpile stewardship, which is "a continuous evolving
process. We have spent $28 billion on it since '92....(SSP) is not
just a bunch of computers. It's experiments, it's observations, it's
surveillance on our weapons. The computers tie everything together."
He said the National Laboratories' computers "are moving so rapidly
and becoming so much more technologically proficient that we learn
more. It's a year-by-year certification, but it's working now."

The directors of the three preeminent National Laboratories -- C. Paul
Robinson of Sandia in New Mexico, C. Bruce Tarter of the University of
California's Lawrence Livermore, and John C. Browne of Los Alamos in
New Mexico -- were cautiously optimistic about the SSP's success with
testing. They all voiced concerns, however, about the effects on
laboratory work of employee attrition rates as scientists retire as
well as the continuing efficiency of aging weapons (all the components
of the stockpiled weapons are relatively aged). Their consensus
appeared to be that more will be known in five to 10 years about the
success of the program, when the results of these factors can be
better gauged.

Offering recommendations to the senators, in the event that they
"choose to ratify" the treaty, Robinson urged them "to raise the
safeguards to a more formal level to be sure they survive; to ensure
that the Congress is involved in the assessment of the stockpile
continuously, as the Executive Branch is; and finally, to specify
better the activities that are allowed. I think there still is an
inconsistency about what some nations feel that they can do without
being in violation of the treaty, versus the U.S. which would adhere
to an absolute zero (ban on nuclear weapons explosions)."

Robinson also urged that an international standard of "detectability"
be established, rather than "an unverifiable zero which could lead to
an asymmetry between the United States and others."

Using the medical analogy he had introduced, lab director Tarter said,
"You go to your doctor, they find an issue....they recommend further
tests. What we do is we find an issue, a corrosion, a crack, a
questionable characteristic of some material. We then go back, we take
the history of nuclear test data; we take everything we've learned
about that weapon. And now we take laboratory scale experiments and
computer simulation and we try to see what effect that thing we
found...will have on the performance of the weapon.

"And we get a second opinion. In fact we get many opinions....And we
decide whether it is a serious enough issue to fix in various ways."
He said they can let it go and watch for a while or "we can in fact do
a major refurbishment using the nuclear weapons plants. But that's a
key decision in how we go through fixing and assuring the reliability
of the stockpile."

Preventive maintenance is also built into the program with a
life-extension facet, Tarter said, "where on a fixed schedule, we will
replace the components that need to be replaced in every weapon in the
stockpile."

He said the weapons have "passed their annual physical" for three
years and will do so again this year. An achievement of which he is
proud, Tarter said, is that this year "not just science, not just
technology, not just computer simulation -- but our lab working with
Sandia and the Department of Defense was able to basically put the
first new units of the life extension program for the W-87 warhead
into the stockpile beginning in February of this year. So we have
achieved a real weapons success and life extension of that particular
warhead."

Browne of Los Alamos said "the reliability of nuclear weapons in our
stockpile cannot be taken for granted with a CTBT; our nuclear
deterrent depends on this." He said maintaining the safety and
reliability of the United States' nuclear weapons without nuclear
testing "is a difficult job; it's an unprecedented technical
challenge," but that the stockpile program is working toward this
goal.

"On the basis of our experience over the past four years, I am
confident that a fully supported and sustained program will enable us
to continue to maintain America's nuclear deterrent without nuclear
testing," he said.

Browne cited additional concerns, including increased findings of
deficiencies in components, an augmented work load, and mandates that
have not been funded. He and the other scientists stressed the
importance of the President's Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
Safeguards: among them number 8 which provides that if the President
is informed by the appropriate cabinet officers and national security
agencies, including DOE's nuclear weapons laboratories, that "a high
level of confidence in the safety or reliability of a nuclear weapons
type" which is deemed critical to the U.S. nuclear deterrent can no
longer be certified, "the President, in consultation with Congress,
would be prepared to withdraw from the CTBT under the standard
'supreme national interests' clause in order to conduct whatever
testing might be required."

Browne said this "provides the necessary hedge against unanticipated
serious problems in the stockpile that cannot be resolved by the
stewardship program."

At the close of the hearing, Senator James Inhofe (Republican,
Oklahoma), declared flatly that "it would take unanimous consent in
order to stop the vote (on approval of the CTBT) from taking place on
Tuesday (October 12). I have already registered my objection, so we're
going to have the vote on Tuesday."

Senator Robert Byrd (Democrat, West Virginia), a veteran of more than
40 years in the Senate, responded that he had learned many things from
former Senator Richard Russell, "the expert par excellence concerning
rules and precedents" of the Congress. "Senator Russell taught me a
long time ago that for every rule, there is another rule," Byrd said,
adding, "I wouldn't be too sure that there isn't another rule, that
there isn't a way to get around that (unanimous consent request)."

Chairman Warner urged the Senators to "gather together as colleagues
in good faith" and resolve the controversy without having "to go into
the minutia of new rules and old ones."