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."