Monday, June 6, 2011

W78 Life Extension Program

There is a reason why only two people “like” the W78 Interest Page on Facebook. While these nuclear warheads are currently deployed on 200 Minuteman III missiles, the W78s may only be in service for another five years. So does that mean the National Nuclear Security Administration is planning their retirement? Not exactly. In a recent post I briefly discussed how the Department of Energy’s “Life Extension Programs” are just a fancy sounding way to increase the power and destructiveness of existing warheads rather than to “ensure that the nuclear stockpile remains reliable.” This is precisely the case with the W78 Life Extension Program.

According to a declassified study released by the NNSA, the W78 will have been deployed for more than 41 years by 2021. Somehow this fact justifies exploring the possibility of a new joint warhead approach (this is the part where “increase the power and destructiveness” comes in). In other words, instead of replacing the existing W78 that has already been extensively tested, the DOE wants to combine the W78 and W88 warhead to make an entirely new type of bomb.

The greatest cause of concern for the W78 Life Extension Program is the implication it may have for the future of nuclear weapons tests. By simply restoring (or better yet retiring) the existing W78, the United States will have no need to conduct full scale tests to ensure the reliability and effectiveness of a new weapon. However, introducing an entirely different type of warhead will open the floodgates to new testing procedures and stray further away from the possibility of achieving a comprehensive test ban.

Excuse me, Mr. President, but whatever happened to the “immediate and aggressive pursuit to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty?” How are we supposed to internationally outlaw nuclear weapons tests if we continue to allocate billions of dollars to develop new types of warheads? Something just doesn’t add up here. But that’s not all: studies by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory have concluded that the plutonium pits in the current warheads have a life span of at least 85 years, if not a century. That means that the existing W78 warheads have a solid 44 years of life left. Let us be reminded that we’re talking about a thermonuclear weapon here, not a person going through a mid-life crisis.

According to the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, the focus of the W78 Life Extension Program should be on “nuts-and-bolts surveillance and maintenance programs, which seek to avoid changes to previously tested nuclear weapons.” So, NNSA decision makers: go out and buy a motorcycle, but spare the middle-aged nuclear stockpile from improvements that would only cause greater destructive capabilities and move further away from a ban on nuclear weapons tests.

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