Jeffrey LewisRRW: Los Alamos vs. Livermore

Remember: The Soviets are the competition. Los Alamos is the enemy.”

Statement Attributed to a Weapons Designer
at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Stephen Schwartz on
the RRW program

Congress imagined the Reliable Replacement Warhead program as an effort to “improve the reliability, longevity, and certifiability of existing weapons and their components.”

The devil, however, is in the details. Whether the RRW is a nonproliferation friendly alternative to the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP)—or a Trojan Horse bearing a return to nuclear testing depends—will depend on the actual research progam carried out by the labs.

Stephen Schwartz has more on the Congressional debate in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

While Congress does what it does best, the labs are moving out.

In July 2005, Albuquerque Journal reporter John Fleck blogged that “Reliable Replacement Warhead design work is on a decidedly fast track.” John was writing about a May 2005 planning meeting (revealed in a Congressional Research Service report) that called for competing teams from Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos to submit preliminary designs for the RRW within 18 months.

Now, Inside the Pentagon reports more details on the timeline and approaches by both teams:

In May, the Nuclear Weapons Council authorized an 18-month feasibility study on the RRW, which, if it goes into production, would be delivered to the Navy and Air Force.

At the end of that time frame, the Los Alamos and Livermore teams will deliver their designs to a council project officer group, which includes Navy and Air Force officials, Martz said. The project officer group then will make a recommendation to the council on a next step, and the panel members could decide to go forward with both designs, he added.

For now, a firewall exists between the two teams, but it will come down in March 2006, when each team will get a chance to look at both designs, according to [Joseph] Martz [Los Alamos’ project director and capture manger for RRW].

The teams also will deliver a life-cycle cost analysis—for example, what they expect the RRW will cost vs. keeping legacy systems—and an explanation of how their designs will enable a transformation in the nuclear complex by making operations easier at the production plants, he said.

One innovation in warhead manufacturing being pursued by Los Alamos is eliminating the need for drilling square holes, which were used in building legacy systems, Martz said.

Further, the Los Alamos team is trying not to employ environmentally hazardous materials that need special care in manufacturing.

For instance, the team wants to avoid the use of beryllium, which was considered effective for legacy systems because it is light but very strong, Martz said. In some cases, beryllium could be replaced with stainless steel.

ITP also quoted John Immele, Los Alamos’ deputy director for national security, saing that both laboratories can also “make pits with half as many steps.”

No indication that anyone is looking at uranium primaries as an alternative pit design.

I am fond of the Uranium Reliable Replacement Warhead (URRW), put forward by retired Sandia National Laboratories vice president Bob Peurifoy (who, truth be told, would prefer our current arsenal to any other option).

If the Reliable Replacement Warhead program really is about making more reliable designs and a less toxic nuclear infrastructure—rather than rationalizing current practices—Uranium is the way to go.

If what you really want to do is get back to designing new nuclear weapons, well, then you’re a plutonium man.

All of this, of course, sidesteps some thorny questions about the future of nuclear deterrence more than a decade after the Cold War. Stephen Schwartz, writing in the The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, asks tough questions about why the US plans to stay in the deterrent business at all.


  1. J. (History)

    That’s a good article in BAS – I like the last para in particular. Too many people are quick to think we got out of the offensive CB warfare business for moral reasons. Rather we got out of that business because conventional weapons did the job just as well.