- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The production of a new American Nuclear Posture Review and the signing of a START agreement with Russia have once again raised the awareness level of nuclear issues (“Nuke focus: Terror, not treaty,” Page 1, Monday). Columns by Charles Krauthammer and Graham Allison in The Washington Post and by Jeffrey T. Kuhner, Travis Sharp, Daniel Gallington and Wesley Pruden in The Washington Times on Friday attest to the renewed interest.

In those pieces, the authors generally praise or criticize the political implications of the new policies, neglecting to probe deeper into the technical capability underlying the changed concepts. President Obama has attempted to square the circle by stating that America will retain a nuclear stockpile, albeit at reduced levels, but will not manufacture new warheads, the assumption being that a stockpile-maintenance program can ensure the safety, reliability and effectiveness of the warheads almost indefinitely.

What tends to get overlooked in such assumptions is that the warheads in the stockpile were the product of a thriving industry that was able to attract and retain quality staff because of the challenge of the ongoing work. That industry has declined to a level at which it can no longer claim to be even a cottage industry as the remaining staff undertake refurbishment of warheads designed decades ago. Doubtless, those now in charge of stockpile maintenance will give assurances that nuclear and nonnuclear components can be rebuilt and replaced without detriment to the warhead, but at what risk and financial costs is never specified.

The leading nuclear nations used to conduct underground nuclear tests - not to ascertain whether the warhead produced a nuclear yield but to see how closely the performance matched the predictions. It was rare indeed that the theory and test were in alignment, indicating that verification was an integral part of a satisfactory design. Those days are gone, and with them, far too much of the expertise that understood the complexity of the effect of subtle changes in weapon components that are no longer in specifications and have to be replaced.

In his piece (“Nuclear deterrent still key,” Opinion, Friday) Mr. Sharp noted that the Obama administration will increase funding for stockpile management and refurbishment. The problem is that such a program alone, without a development activity to explore enhancements to safety and effectiveness of the warheads, leaves us vulnerable as the current warheads age further. These are not political problems, they are highly technical and inherent in any industry that has allowed development to atrophy, accompanied by the loss of experienced staff. When will they ever learn?


Rockville, Md.


Plano, Texas

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