New U.S. warhead could lead to arms race

The Bush administration’s announcement March 2 that it has selected a design for the country’s first post-Cold War nuclear warhead will likely encourage other countries to acquire nuclear weapons, critics say.

The new design, based on a weapon built and tested during the Cold War but never deployed, was developed by a team from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory-California. If produced, it would replace current warheads on U.S. submarine-launched missiles.

Though the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the labs, says the warhead is in an early stage, the labs say they have prepared extensive designs, conducted non-nuclear tests of components and are planning production details.

Critics said the new warhead would threaten nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament efforts and is an unnecessary use of funds and scientific resources.

“While the U.S. government is telling other countries they shouldn’t build nuclear weapons, here the U.S. is leading by exception rather than by example,” said former Energy Department official Robert Alvarez. Since U.S. policy projects possible use of nuclear weapons even against countries without nuclear arms, he added, “U.S. policy is in effect pushing countries to acquire nuclear weapons.”

Jacqueline Cabasso, executive director of the nuclear policy organization Western States Legal Foundation, termed Washington’s plan to keep a huge, sophisticated nuclear arsenal “unreasonable, unacceptable and unlawful.” She called on the Bush administration to take the lead in talks to eliminate nuclear weapons by 2030.

Marylia Kelley, who heads the Livermore-based watchdog organization Tri-Valley CARES, said the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program “threatens the viability of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.” She added, “Our government is sending a signal that will increase international proliferation pressures and increase the nuclear danger.”

While Congress has approved a growing RRW program yearly since 2004, key congressional leaders are expressing opposition.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has fought for years against development of a new generation of nuclear weapons, said she is “100 percent opposed” to the new program.

“What worries me,” she said in a statement, “is that the minute you begin to put more sophisticated warheads on the existing fleet, you are essentially creating a new nuclear weapon. And it’s just a matter of time before other nations do the same thing.”

Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, said that while much time and energy went into the new design, little thought appears to have been given to why the U.S. needs a new nuclear warhead now. He called for “a serious and open debate” on the need to build new nukes.

The Bush administration claims the RRW program is needed to assure the U.S. nuclear arsenal’s continued reliability. But a study released last November showed the present warheads’ key components, the plutonium “pits,” are reliable for at least 85 years and usually over a century.

Former Livermore Lab director C. Bruce Tarter told a scientific conference last month there is no evidence old weapons are deteriorating, and said the new design would be only the first in a series of new generations of warheads to be built in coming decades.

Both Feinstein and Visclosky have said they plan to hold hearings on the RRW program soon.

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