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Quality of replacement plutonium triggers for aging nuclear warheads questioned

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H. JOSEF HEBERT
January 21, 2008
— Resting atop the Trident II missile, the W88 warhead is among the mainstays of the country’s submarine-based nuclear arsenal. For years, however, testing the warhead’s components to ensure the weapon produces the intended blast instead of a fizzle has been complicated by a lack of replacement plutonium triggers.

Last summer, the first replacement plutonium trigger in 18 years received “diamond stamp” approval signaling it was ready for use in a warhead. To scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, that was a milestone to celebrate. It meant the warheads, after testing that makes the original trigger unsuitable for reuse, could be reassembled with a new trigger and put back into service.


A watchdog group now is raising questions about whether the replacement triggers, also known as pits, can be guaranteed to be as reliable as those already in some 400 W88 warheads. The original triggers were made with the benefit of underground nuclear testing, which the U.S. halted in 1992, and through a different process than the replacements. The last of the original triggers were manufactured in the late 1980s.


The Project on Government Oversight says it was told by some Los Alamos scientists that the trigger certified last July and known as the W88 pit needed 72 waivers from the specifications used for the original triggers, including 53 engineering-related changes.


“With this large number of waivers, how is it possible to objectively tell whether the pit will even work?” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the group that monitors nuclear weapons-related activities. She posed that question in a letter last Friday to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.


The government acknowledges differences between the old triggers and their replacements.


The new ones were made by using a mold to cast the grapefruit-size plutonium sphere. The original triggers, all made at the now-closed Rocky Flats facility in Colorado, were hammered into precise form. This process is viewed by metallurgists as producing a stronger product.


Because the U.S. no longer conducts underground nuclear tests, the Los Alamos scientists had to rely on other sources to replicate the original triggers and guarantee that the replacements would be as reliable as the old. These means included small-scale plutonium tests, technical data from past underground tests, and computer codes and models.


Precise manufacture of the trigger is essential.


In a warhead’s detonation, a conventional explosive packaged around the pit compresses the plutonium inward, creating enough pressure for an atomic chain reaction. That, in turn, creates the high temperatures and pressure to ignite a “secondary” nuclear component. The result is a a massive hydrogen blast.


Any variation or flaw in the pit could cause a warhead not to detonate properly or to detonate with less explosive power than expected.


Since last summer’s announcement, the Los Alamos lab has made 10 additional W88 triggers. So far, nine have earned the “diamond stamp” from the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the lab’s programs. Such approval means they are ready to use.


At least one other replacement pit required 71 specification waivers, a Los Alamos scientist indirectly involved in the production process told The Associated Press. The scientist spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.


The agency acknowledged there were “more than 70 engineering authorizations” – as it characterizes the waivers – approved in the new W88 pit certification and that this was a “relative high number.”


But Los Alamos and agency officials bristle at suggestions that the new triggers might be less reliable or have flaws that could affect their performance.


In an e-mail response to the watchdog group’s claims, Bernard Pleau, a spokesman for the agency’s office at Los Alamos, said the changes do not “compromise the integrity of the parts. The bottom line – the pits produced meet all functional quality requirements for use and are fully accepted by NNSA.”


Kevin Roark, a spokesman for the Los Alamos weapons program said the changes in specifications “have been fully explored, fully vetted and fully accepted by NNSA and engineering analysis (conducted) by us.”


A single trigger made at Rocky Flats cost less than $4 million. At Los Alamos, it has cost an estimated $430 million over 10 years to certify the first trigger. That difference in cost was noted by Brian in the letter to the energy secretary.


Officials say the cost figures reflect the fact that new facilities and a new process for making the replacement triggers had to be developed. That required extensive computer modeling and testing to assure precise shape, size and weight and that the triggers meet performance requirements.


The change in manufacturing process, from wrought to cast, has been a subject of debate and extensive analysis among those involved in nuclear weapons. Scientists at Los Alamos and at the government’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California concluded the change did not degrade the reliability of the triggers, according to NNSA.


Raymond Jeanloz of the University of California at Berkeley, a longtime adviser to the government on nuclear weapons issues, said in an interview he is not surprised there have been some modification in the W88 warhead, but that does not mean it is less reliable.


“The manufacturing process for the W88 has been incredibly, thoroughly vetted,” said Jeanloz. He was on a panel that last year concluded the plutonium in warhead triggers is much sturdier than previously thought, with a life span of as much 100 years.


The government will not say how many W88 warheads it has. The number has been estimated at about 400, in addition to an estimated 3,200 W76 warheads that also are designed for the submarine-based Trident II missile.



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