The innocuously named Reliable Replacement Warhead program, launched over a year ago to manage the U.S. nuclear arsenal, could seriously damage U.S. national security while costing taxpayers many billions of dollars, a new report says.

“The Reliable Replacement Warhead Program: A slippery slope to new nuclear weapons” was prepared for the Bay Area-based Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment (Tri-Valley CAREs) by Dr. Robert Civiak, a physicist, longtime nuclear weapons policy analyst and former program and budget examiner in the Office of Management and Budget.

It’s not clear just what Congress had in mind when it set up the program late in 2004 with the vague mission to “improve the reliability, longevity and certifiability of existing weapons and their components,” says the report, released Jan. 24. It notes that in each of the last two years Congress rejected Bush administration proposals for new weapons. But, it warns, the nuclear weapons laboratories are eager to build new warheads and see the RRW program as a chance to expand from refurbishing existing warheads to replacing them.

The budget proposal seems modest at $27 million. But in a telephone interview, Dr. Civiak pointed out that the 2007 proposed budget mentions “reliable replacement warhead” or “RRW” over 90 times. “There’s considerably more spending related to the RRW than the $27 million direct request,” he said. Though the budget for the directly funded part is “very small,” he added, “it’s clearly the organizing principle for the future, for the nuclear weapons labs, throughout the budget.”

While the report does not discuss whether the U.S. should keep nuclear weapons indefinitely, it emphasizes that the RRW program would undermine national security by disrupting nonproliferation efforts, by leading to possible resumption of currently banned underground testing and by lowering the threshold for using nuclear arms.

Further, the report claims, the present U.S. arsenal is quite stable and safe from accidental detonation. Going beyond the most minimal changes risks eroding safety and stability.

Nor does the U.S. face significant competition. “The idea that some development abroad would require us to respond with new nuclear weapons is ridiculous,” Civiak said.

Congressional views range from seeing the RRW program as basically maintaining existing weapons to viewing it as a path to new warheads meeting new requirements. In its 2005 report, the House Appropriations Committee said its “qualified endorsement” was based on reengineering and remanufacturing warheads “for an existing weapons system in the stockpile,” not for new warhead designs for new missions. But Linton Brooks, who heads the National Nuclear Security Administration, has said RRW would involve redesigning most warhead components and revitalizing the facilities to manufacture them.

Last April Brooks told the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces of the Senate Armed Services Committee, “The Cold War legacy stockpile may be the wrong stockpile from a military perspective.”

In a Jan. 15 article, the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Brooks as saying, “I will personally be very surprised if we can get the advantages we want without redesigning the physics package,” the components that create the nuclear reaction. Brooks added that the warheads “will require new pits. … We are going to need to melt them down and recast them.”

The Tri-Valley CAREs report recommends cancellation of the RRW program, and urges Congress to bar any changes to existing nuclear warheads without its prior approval. It further calls for a “curatorship” approach maintaining current components for as long as the U.S. keeps its nuclear arsenal.