Produce to Reduce: The Hedge Gamble

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By Nickolas Roth, Hans M. Kristensen and Stephen Young

Note: This is the fourth of four posts analyzing the FY 2012 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, each jointly produced by the Federation of American Scientists and Union of Concerned Scientists. See previous posts: 1, 2, 3.

The FY2012 SSMP repeats the promise made in numerous previous government documents and official statements: construction of new factories with greater warhead production capability might enable retirement of some “hedge” warheads after the “responsive complex” has come online in the early-2020s and thereby reduce the overall size of the stockpile.

Today, the United States has approximately 2,150 operational warheads and another 2,850 in the hedge, for a stockpile total of 5,000. The FY2011 SSMP stated (Annex D, p. 2) that the planned production complex would be able to support a stockpile of 3,000-3,500 warheads, a level 1,500-2,000 warheads below today’s stockpile. However, it did not provide a timetable or strategy for any such reductions.

The FY2012 SSMP does, however, place conditions on further reductions. The report states that the number of nuclear weapons in the nation’s stockpile “may be reduced…if planned LEPs are completed successfully, the future infrastructure of the NNSA enterprise is achieved, and geopolitical stability permits” (emphasis added). The first two items on this list will not be accomplished for at least twenty years, but the plan shows that production of “hedge” warheads will continue even after that.

Specifically, the FY2012 SSNP states that this new production capacity is required “regardless of the size of stockpile” and shows that NNSA now plans to produce W78 hedge warheads during the 2021-2024 W78 LEP and even “continue production of additional hedge warheads” through 2035.

NNSA Plans Production of More Hedge Warheads
Despite a promise that construction of new warhead production facilities will permit a reduction of the “hedge” of non-deployed warheads in the stockpile, the FY2012 SSMP shows that the new facilities will be used to produce “additional hedge warheads.” The key phrase is enlarged above. Click on image to see the original.

The chart hints that hedge warhead production might also be part of the other warhead LEPs in the NNSA plan. The reason for the additional W78 hedge production in 2025-2035 is not stated. Right now, there are approximately 600 W78s in the stockpile, of which 350 are in the hedge. Are they planning to increase the latter number? Or is that simply continuing production of the “common or adaptable” warhead that would be actually used in the W88 LEP later on? Have other LEPs not been performed on warheads in the hedge, but they will here? The answer is a mystery.

Yet the use of new warhead production facilities to produce additional hedge warheads undermines the administration’s message that the new facilities are needed to allow a reduction of the stockpile. It suggests that even with a new “responsive” warhead production complex, the future stockpile will still include a sizeable hedge of reserve warheads.

Additionally, although the SSMP states that these facilities are needed to “maintain a safe, secure, and reliable arsenal over the long term,” these facilities will not be operational until most of the currently planned Life Extension Programs are either completed or well underway. That makes the plan to use the new facilities to produce additional hedge warheads particularly problematic.

About the authors: Nickolas Roth is Policy Fellow for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a graduate student at the University of Maryland, Hans M. Kristensen is the Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, and Stephen Young is a Senior Analyst at Union of Concerned Scientists.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

First International VBC Conference: Video Available

Please click on the image above to view the VBC conference video

The First Virtual Biosecurity Center international conference, 1 September 2011, can be accessed here. This conference explored the role of web-based networks in promoting global biosecurity, and provided an opportunity for experts from around the world to identify best practices and partnerships, and determine the feasibility of linking existing networks for global communication. For more information please visit the Virtual Biosecurity Center home page and the Video.

Hydrodynamic Tests: Not to Scale

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By Nickolas Roth, Hans M. Kristensen and Stephen Young

Note: This is the third of four posts analyzing the FY 2012 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, each jointly produced by the Federation of American Scientists and Union of Concerned Scientists. See previous posts: 1, 2, 4.

Since the 1950s, the performance of U.S. nuclear warheads has been successfully validated using a wide range of simulation experiments, such as the compression of fissile material in hydrodynamic tests. And as the stockpile ages “and modernization design options become more complex,” the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP) states, “subcritical experiment that include special nuclear material will become more important” (emphasis added). (Special nuclear material refers to highly enriched uranium and plutonium, which are key components of a nuclear weapon.)

The SSMP and other documents describe an interest in a type of hydrodynamic test called a “scaled experiment,” which uses more special nuclear material and more closely resembles actual warhead designs. The public justification is to “improve confidence in predictive capabilities and help validate simulation codes,” but part of the reason is also that those codes will become less reliable if NNSA changes the warhead designs by adding new safety and security features during the Life Extension Programs. Continue reading

“A Conversation With An Expert”- Learning Technologies in Education

Listen above to a new edition of the FAS Podcast: “A Conversation With An Expert,” featuring Director of Learning Technologies Program at FAS, Dr. Melanie Stegman. Topics discussed include: history of the Learning Technologies Program at FAS, the benefits of using technology such as video games in education, and suggestions for tools teachers can use to enhance comprehension of STEM topics in curriculum.

Download the podcast here.

To read the podcast transcript, click here (PDF).

For more information on topics discussed in the podcast, please visit:

Immune Attack Website

Digital Promise

NISE Network