Getting the Facts Right on Nuclear Warhead Program

Ryan Shelby is a UC Berkeley graduate student. Send comments to [email protected]





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The Reliable Replacement Warhead is a congressionally mandated program created by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Safety Administration to design a replacement warhead for the nation’s aging nuclear arsenal that would 1) improve the security features on the warheads to prevent their accidental or unauthorized use, 2) modernize and improve the quality of the manufacturing techniques designed to maintain the nuclear arsenal, 3) reduce the usage of hazardous material such as beryllium in the warheads, and 4) reduced the need for nuclear testing in order to maintain confidence in the nuclear arsenal.

The article in last Friday’s paper (“When the Deterrent Beceoms a Threat,” Nov. 30) incorrectly stated that the Reliable Replacement Warhead is for the “development of a new hydrogen bomb.” Furthermore, the article made reference to a report entitled “Pit Lifetime” compiled in late 2006 and released January 2007 by JASON, an independent defense science and technology advisory group established in 1960, and insinuated that JASON itself conducted tests to determine the lifetime of the plutonium pits.

In this report, JASON was asked by to conduct a “comprehensive review of the pit assessment programs” being performed by Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on plutonium pits’ projected lifetime. JASON judged “that the Los Alamos/Livermore assessment provides a scientifically valid framework for evaluating pit lifetimes.” JASON also agreed with the laboratories’ findings that “most primary types have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years as regards aging of plutonium” and stated that pits “with assessed minimum lifetimes of 100 years or less have clear mitigation paths that are proposed and/or being implemented”. The Reliable Replacement Warhead program is one of these mitigation paths.

Another report entitled “Reliable Replace Warhead Executive Summary,” released in late September 2007, confirmed the validity of the technical approach of warhead program, recommended the need for further studies that will provide “an improved understanding of materials aging and interactions over the proposed multi-decade lifetime of Reliable Replacement Warhead systems”, and the creation of a peer review team that has the “authority to pose formal tests of a computational or experimental nature to the design team” in order to increase the certification and confidence of the Reliable Replacement Warhead.

Proponents of the Reliable Replacement Warhead state that it will reduce the need to have numerous weapons by decreasing the uncertainties in the projected performance and maintainability of these weapons. Skeptics state that the Reliable Replacement Warhead should be supported if it reduces “reliance of the U.S. on nuclear weapons”, leads to “ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty”, and “significantly reduces the cost of maintaining our nuclear weapon complex”. Opponents state that the program could “lead to new nuclear testing”, “it would be costly” and that it could cause the international community to think that the US is placing a “renewed interest on nuclear weapons.”

A resolution was submitted to and approved by the Graduate Assembly to administer a poll to understand what graduate students currently think about the Reliable Replacement Warhead program and the UC system’s involvement with the program. The poll is not designed to cajole students into agreeing with the stances or thought processes of other students.

My goal in helping to create this poll is to make it as objective as possible and provide facts that the graduate population can use to make an informed decision. Any program that claims to ensure the safety, reliability, and leads to a reduction of our nation’s nuclear arsenal should be debated and its merits/pitfalls discussed. I expect UC Berkeley students to do what they have always done: Get the facts, make up their own minds about issues and not be coerced into following anyone’s agenda.

If we start using deceits and half-truths in order to further our own political agendas and gains, no matter how righteous the cause, does that not damage the spirit of what Berkeley is all about? I say it does. The essence of UC Berkeley is rooted in the strength, knowledge, and honesty of its population. When the Graduate Assembly poll is introduced, give your own opinions and not those of others.

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