Building a Better Bomb

While condemning India for its nuclear testing, the U.S. government quietly funnels billions to research programs aimed at creating an ever-more-virulent nuclear arsenal

Physicists both for and against the Stockpile Stewardship program agree it would be lunacy to actually manufacture a completely new warhead and give it to the military without first testing it.

"Without underground testing, there is no responsible way that you could develop and introduce into the arsenal with any real confidence a new design. Period," says Drell.

But the program allows for designing new warheads, and being ready to test them, should we ever need to rush them into production.

And the treaty, as the government reads it, allows for changes in existing weapons -- like the Mod 11 -- as long as the physics package is essentially left unchanged.

"It's true that under the test ban as written and interpreted by the United States you can take existing nuclear packages and repackage them in a new weapons delivery system," says arms control advocate Keeny. "But that's not a new nuclear weapon and I don't think it really undercuts the value of the treaty."

In light of the Green Book's revelations, the proclaimed need to attract top-notch scientists, build the NIF laser, amass 100 teraflops of computing power, and spend $4 billion a year suddenly begins to make more sense.

"We're spending more money now than has ever been spent on nuclear weapons research in the history of the U.S. going back to the beginning of the Manhattan Project," says renegade weapons designer Taylor. "There's just no way that can be justified unless we say we're going to continue to develop new weapons up to the point where they can be tested."

The NIF laser and other new facilities are bound to attract bright young scientists, as the weapons labs hope, says Kidder. Once they arrive, they're going to want to jump into cutting edge weapons work, not just take the pulses of fading warheads.

"If you're going to keep a cadre of nuclear weapons design people around, what are you going to do with them? Make them read comic books?" he asks.

The Green Book, anti-nuclear activists say, shows that the government has secretly been planning all along to continue weapons development with a determination far greater than the public was told. "We believed that the program was indeed bigger and more encompassing than DOE had admitted in public, and that was all vindicated by what was in the Green Book," says Paine of the NRDC. "The issue with stewardship is whether you're going to live within the envelope of nuclear design knowledge that you inherited from the Cold War, or going to expand that envelope to modify or develop new weapons in the future."

In effect, Paine and others argue, the stewardship program will rewrite that long-held maxim of test ban treaty supporters -- we will still design new weapons, whether we can blow them up or not. Our country's base of knowledge will continue to expand despite the test ban.

"Part of this could be considered the excesses of the rear guard who are battling the dissolution of the Cold War," says Paine. "The Stockpile Stewardship program, in all its splendor, is a terribly discouraging development if you are approaching this issue looking at the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as a step on the road to nuclear disarmament, which the U.S. government clearly does not."

To Mello, the Green Book betrays a fundamental difference between what the public has been led to believe and the true attitude of the government toward our nuclear future.

"In the DOE lexicon, 'stewardship' is not applied to a static arsenal," observes Mello. "It's an evolving arsenal."

When pressed, the weapons designers concede that it is not scientists who mark the path our nuclear policy will follow. That power belongs to the politicians.

The labs, and DOE, are just doing what the president and Congress ask. And right now, the goal is to keep the country at the cutting edge of nuclear weaponry. When the military wants a "new" weapon, like the Mod 11, the labs are expected to deliver. "Whether the country chooses to change weapons in that fashion is a political decision," says Hogan, the NIF senior scientist.

Even Kidder, who feels the stewardship program is excessive and unnecessary, doesn't place the blame on his colleagues at Livermore. "I don't mean to say that DOE and the labs are thinking all this up," Kidder says. "They may have originally convinced the Congress that this is a good idea, but ultimately it is the Congress that is mandating these things."

That explanation leaves opponents of nuclear weapons feeling cheated. For decades, they have worked to get rid of warheads and block new research into weaponry.

To the extent possible, they want the codes to remain imperfect, the knowledge to die off with the old bomb scientists. They don't care if new generations of scientists have expensive equipment to experiment with.

"Nuclear weapons are going to keep these guys occupied for some time to come," says Paine of the NRDC. "For those who fret about whether it's exciting enough work for them to just be glorified nuclear janitors, my answer is 'Who cares?' "

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