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Nuclear Warheads: The Reliable Replacement Warhead Program and the Life Extension Program

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Congressional rept.

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Current U.S. nuclear warheads were deployed during the Cold War. The National Nuclear Security Administration NNSA maintains them with a Life Extension Program LEP. NNSA questions if LEP can maintain them indefinitely on grounds that an accretion of minor changes introduced in replacement components will inevitably reduce confidence in warhead safety and reliability over the long term. Congress mandated the Reliable Replacement Warhead RRW program in 2004 to improve the reliability, longevity, and certifiability of existing weapons and their components. Since then, Congress has specified more goals for the program, such as increasing safety, reducing the need for nuclear testing, designing for ease of manufacture, and reducing cost. RRW has become the principal program for designing new warheads to replace current ones. RRWs supporters argue that the competing designs meet all goals set by Congress. For example, they claim that certain design features will provide high confidence, without nuclear testing, that RRWs will work. Some critics respond that LEP should work indefinitely and question if RRW will succeed. They hold that LEP meets almost all goals set by Congress, and point to other LEP advantages. Others maintain that the scientific tools used to create RRW designs have not been directly validated by nuclear tests, and that the accretion of changes resulting from LEP makes the link of current warheads to the original tested designs increasingly tenuous. In this view, nuclear testing offers the only way to maintain confidence in the stockpile. RRW raises other issues for Congress Is RRW likely to cost more or less than LEP How much safety, and how much protection against unauthorized use, are enough Should the nuclear weapons complex be reconfigured to support RRW And what information does Congress need to choose among the alternatives

Subject Categories:

  • Manufacturing and Industrial Engineering and Control of Production Systems
  • Logistics, Military Facilities and Supplies
  • Nuclear Weapons

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