This research paper has been commissioned by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, but reflects the views of the author and should not be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Commission



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This research paper has been commissioned by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, but reflects the views of the author and should not be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Commission.



The U.S. Stockpile Stewardship Program: Domestic Perspectives and International Implications
Fiona Simpson1
May 2009



Executive Summary
This paper seeks to outline and assess the political debate surrounding stockpile stewardship in the US. It begins by providing a brief history of the stockpile stewardship program (SSP), before turning to the debate surrounding the program itself. Specifically, it maintains that the “dual commitment” of the SSP – to maintain the safety and reliability of the deterrent without nuclear testing – contains some inherent tensions, which have resulted in very different assessments of the program and its contribution to both national security and the international nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime.
The paper argues that the perspectives tend to fall along a continuum in which the program is, at one end, considered too constraining on unilateral decision-making regarding the ability to maintain and modernize the existing nuclear arsenal and, at the other, is considered to be not constraining enough. In between, there are those who consider the program to be essentially sound, but in need of redirection. The paper places these views under one of four general categories:
The Skeptic’s View (1): Stockpile stewardship is fundamentally problematic; undermines the national interest.
The Qualified Supporter’s View (1): Stockpile stewardship is essentially sound; requires redirection towards new (re)designs, modernization.
The Qualified Supporter’s View (2): Stockpile stewardship is essentially sound, requires redirection away from new designs, modernization.
The Skeptic’s View (2): Stockpile stewardship is fundamentally problematic; undermines international non-proliferation and disarmament efforts.
The paper then touches briefly on the question of the benefits of cooperative stewardship, (cooperation with other nuclear-weapons states), noting that such cooperation has been a given in some cases (the U.K.) and has proved more controversial in others (the Russian Federation). The paper notes that suggestions have been made for greater cooperation. in this area, with the Russian Federation, as well as the possibility of integrating the existing cooperation stewardship with Russia – such as it is – with other areas of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia on securing nuclear materials.
Finally, the paper focuses on the relationship between the work of the SSP and the future of the CTBT, with particular reference to the developments over the last ten years, since the US Senate’s rejection of the Treaty. The results of the SSP’s work over the past decade indicate that many of the technical concerns regarding warhead reliability, which were cited by some as the basis for rejecting the Treaty in 1999, have been assuaged. However, it is argued that technical concerns regarding the CTBT have always been irrevocably entwined with political and national security concerns, and these concerns remain and are likely to reappear. It is noted that even if all technical arguments in favor of ratification are convincing, there is no reason to assume that this will translate into political support for the Treaty.
Obtaining this support will require an active role by the U.S. President, but will also require that increased attention be paid to putting forward convincing arguments in favor of the non-proliferation and disarmament advantages created by the CTBT, both for the international regime and for the United States. The nuclear programs of Iran and Syria, and the nuclear test conducted by the DPRK – all of which have taken place despite the U.S. testing moratorium may make finding convincing political arguments in favor of the Treaty at least as challenging as in 1999, if not more so. The paper also notes that some of those who opposed the CTBT in 1999 have since come out in support of its ratification and may serve as credible sources of persuasion for those who remain reticent.
The paper concludes by observing certain common themes have emerged with regard to stockpile stewardship, regardless of which perspective on the program is favored. The first is that the ultimate objective of the Stockpile Stewardship Program has tended to be ill-defined. One of the more tangible concerns arising from this question – and, inevitably, a source of future deliberations – will be the financial cost of the program. If the future course of the SSP is unclear, as it seems to be now that the RRW program is off the table, finding political (and therefore budgetary) support for the program may prove difficult.
In addition, stockpile stewardship, in its present form, has self-evidently postponed any decision about modernization and new nuclear weapons. While the RRW program has been sidelined, there is no reason to assume it will not be revisited, although its eventual success is by no means assured, particularly if there continues to be a lack of precision regarding what the RRW concept entails.
The debate over stockpile stewardship is, in essence, a debate over the future of the US deterrent. In turn, a debate about the future of the US deterrent (and whether or not it has one) may also be credibly understood as a window into the US intentions regarding nuclear disarmament. The results of these discussions will inevitably be held up by other actors for comparison against US rhetoric on this issue.

Introduction
The end of the Cold War, in 1991, resulted in perhaps a greater degree of political optimism than at any time in the twentieth century, certainly since the end of the Second World War and particularly in the context of nuclear non-proliferation. To be sure, revelations regarding Iraq’s clandestine nuclear weapons program had increased concerns regarding the spread of nuclear weapons to an increasing number of states, regardless of whether or not those states were parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). However, the demise of the previous nuclear paradigm – that of the two Cold War adversaries on either side of a world divided by an iron curtain and each deterring the other with the prospect of mutually assured destruction – seemed to have given way to sustained and significant reductions in the numbers of nuclear weapons, to realistic prospects for the conclusion and entry into for of a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), and to a unified and effective United Nations Security Council.
Over the ensuing two decades, such optimism has often appeared increasingly quaint. Although significant cuts in the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Russian Federation have taken place, both states, along with the three other NPT nuclear-weapon-States – have been subject to accusations that they have failed to take their disarmament obligations seriously. The US, in particular, has been the target of such criticism. Moreover, the CTBT – the ratification of which was rejected by the US Senate in 1999 – has not yet entered into force, while the words “unified” and “effective” are rarely used in the context of the Security Council.
Against the backdrop of the post-Cold War evolution of the nuclear non-proliferation regime is the U.S. stockpile stewardship program (SSP). The antecedents of this program may be found with the self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons tests that was announced by then-President George H.W. Bush in 1992. The program is closely linked not only to cuts in the nuclear arsenal (while retaining personnel and expertise), but also to the prospects for CTBT ratification, seeking – as it does – to ensure the reliability and safety of the nuclear arsenal without the need for testing. Although it is a technical program, the political ramifications of stockpile stewardship have, from the outset, given rise to a range of disagreements within the US. It has been charged that the SSP is, variously, too restrictive of the United States’ ability to be flexible with regard to its response to changing threats or is not restrictive enough – is antithetical, in fact, to non-proliferation and disarmament efforts.
Given its origins as a Clinton administration initiative and its related connections to the domestic debate over ratification of the CTBT and the Treaty’s eventual entry into force, such domestic politicization is hardly surprising. In addition, the ratification of the Treaty by the U.S. has become highly symbolic in the international sphere, often being viewed – fairly or unfairly – as a litmus test of the sincerity of nuclear-weapons states regarding their obligations under Article VI of the NPT (i.e. to negotiate in good faith towards nuclear disarmament). The CTBT was the first of the thirteen practical steps towards nuclear disarmament agreed at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, and the U.S. failure to ratify the Treaty is frequently cited by other states parties to the NPT as part of the reason for the deadlock in the regime.2 Ratification of the CTBT may, in turn, shed light on whether and when the US non-ratification of the Treaty has been a reason or an excuse for a lack of movement on that issue by other states.
Moreover, the history and future of the SSP, as well as the results of its work, are an integral part of decision-making on the direction of the US nuclear deterrent. The direction of the deterrent – the extent to which it is maintained and modernized, as well as the perpetuation of the testing moratorium – has, in turn, a sizable effect on the viability of non-proliferation and disarmament efforts writ large.
This paper will therefore seek to outline and assess the political debate surrounding stockpile stewardship in the US. A 2007 report by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has suggested that “stockpile stewardship has succeeded politically because of the dual commitment to a sound nuclear weapons program and to one that proceeds without nuclear testing.”3 This dual commitment, however, contains some inherent tensions, which have given rise to differing opinions regarding the efficacy and direction of such efforts. In addition, there is the question of the benefits of cooperative stewardship, i.e., cooperation with other nuclear-weapons states, which has been a given in some cases (the U.K.) and has proved more controversial in others (the Russian Federation).
Finally, the paper will turn to the relationship between the work of the SSP and the future of the CTBT, with particular reference to the developments over the last ten years, since the US Senate’s rejection of the Treaty. Specifically, results of the SSP’s work over the past decade indicate that many of the technical concerns regarding warhead reliability, which were cited by some as the basis for rejecting the Treaty in 1999, have been assuaged. The paper will also assess whether or not these advances in technical knowledge are likely to overcome both the political and other technical concerns (i.e. regarding verification) raised by the CTBT.
Four perspectives on stockpile stewardship
The political debates regarding the SSP, as noted previously, tend to fall along a continuum in which the program is, at one end, considered too restrictive upon unilateral decision-making and, at the other, considered to be not restrictive enough. In between, there are those who consider the program to be essentially sound, but in need of certain modifications (see Annex 1). These views appear to fall more or less under four categories.
The Skeptic’s View (1): Stockpile stewardship is fundamentally problematic; undermines the national interest. According to this view, stockpile stewardship efforts are considered to be unacceptably restrictive. Instead, it is argued, new warhead designs should be introduced and it should be made possible for testing to resume either immediately or, more commonly, within a relatively short time-frame.
The Qualified Supporter’s View (1): Stockpile stewardship is essentially sound; requires redirection towards new (re)designs, modernization: More recently, it has been argued that the goals of the SSP (specifically, ensuring confidence in the reliability and safety of the nuclear deterrent without the need for testing), while preferable insofar as the international climate permits, should be approached in a more flexible manner and the existing deterrent transformed from its Cold War framework to a modern arsenal (i.e. low-yield earth-penetrating nuclear weapons and, later, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) Initiative), which could allow for the preservation of the program’s goals via-à-vis nuclear testing while ushering in a further reduction of the stockpile and serving a means to address the post-Cold War challenges (including the potential for attacks by non-state actors using nuclear, biological, chemical, or radiological weapons).
The Qualified Supporter’s View (2): Stockpile stewardship is essentially sound, requires redirection away from new designs, modernization: Alternatively, it has been suggested that, again, while the Stockpile Stewardship Program is essentially sound – an interim, if unfortunate, necessity given the reality of nuclear weapons – it should focus the bulk of its efforts on the obtaining support (both financial and political) for the existing life extension programs, stockpile surveillance, and other activities dedicated to supporting the testing moratorium, and with the ultimate goal of eventual disarmament. This approach tends to be skeptical of initiatives such as the Reliable Replacement Warhead, not least because of its potential to lead to resumed testing and to undermine the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Other experimental work carried out under the auspices of the program has also, in some cases, been subject to criticism.
The Skeptic’s View (2): Stockpile stewardship is fundamentally problematic; undermines international non-proliferation and disarmament efforts. Finally, the SSP has been labeled – both in and of itself and as a consequence of the suggested realignment characterized by the nuclear earth-penetrator work and the RRW Program – as, once again, intrinsically problematic. This is the “flip-side” of the more national security-oriented approach outlined above, in that it considers the SSP flawed, this time, by virtue of its lack of restrictions. According this assessment, the SSP, by its very nature, is hostile to the goals of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, epitomizes a lack of commitment to Article VI obligations under the NPT, and thus contributes to the stalemate that has characterized the nuclear non-proliferation regime for the better part of a decade.
History of the US-based Stockpile Stewardship Program
In the US, the science-based stockpile stewardship and management program grew out of the 1992 moratorium on nuclear testing, which was extended in 1993, under President Clinton. This moratorium was part of a broader trend, with the then-USSR making a similar pledge in 1990 and the United Kingdom doing the same in 1991. Three years after President Clinton’s moratorium extension, China and France followed suit, after completing their own “farewell tests.” Pakistan and India, who conducted nuclear weapons test in 1998, also subsequently announced unilateral moratoria on further testing. The DPRK, which conducted a nuclear test in October 2006 (generally considered to have been something of a “fizzle”), has made no such pledge.
In 1995, the announcement was made that the US would sign (and move to ratify) the CTBT. 4 The Stockpile Stewardship Program, which had been in development for the past two years, was put forward as part of a quid pro quo to help allay concerns about the national security implications of ending nuclear tests and, by doing so, to garner the support needed in the Senate for CTBT ratification. The SSP allowed for the preservation of the nuclear deterrent (and, equally as important, the retention of the related technical expertise by the three national laboratories), thereby shifting away from the development of new weapons designs that had occurred during the Cold War. This stated position explicitly did not rule out a return to testing and, in fact, noted that this did not indicate any intention on the part of the Clinton Administration to move towards nuclear disarmament.5 Instead, the program – established in response to the (FY) 1994 Defense Authorization Act – was officially created in order to:


  1. Support a focused, multifaceted program to increase the understanding of the enduring stockpile;

  2. Predict, detect, and evaluate potential problems of the aging stockpile;

  3. Refurbish and re-manufacture nuclear weapons and components, as required; and

  4. Maintain the science and engineering institutions needed to support the nation’s nuclear deterrent, now and in the future.6

The SSP, as conceptualized, would allow the national weapons laboratories (Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia) to carry out the kind of work described above. The continuation of such work, it was hoped, would allow the labs to attract and retain the personnel, and thus the intellectual and technical expertise, that existed around the nuclear deterrent by ensuring that they had something against which to apply and refine that expertise in spite of the fact that no yield-producing tests would be carried out.


During the time between its formal inception, in 1995, and the unveiling of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) Program in 2004, the implementation of stockpile surveillance, and the life extension program (LEP) of the SSP, maintained the warheads’ reliability by replacing components as they aged as part of an annual certification process. This is done through routine surveillance of a selection of warheads to search for evidence of deterioration, primarily through non-destructive assay, but also through destructive evaluation.7 In cases where problems are detected that are located outside the nuclear explosives package, corrections and replacements may be made with testable or upgraded components. However, problems that have occurred in the nuclear explosive package component of a warhead may be only corrected or replaced “using original designs and, insofar as possible, original materials,” but, in keeping with the moratorium, cannot be tested.8
Against the backdrop of the life extension programs, and in order to further understand and explore how failures and aging occurred, as well as other aspects of the weapons, the SSP supported three new experimental developments: a National Ignition Facility (NIF); a Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DAHRT) Facility; the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (later Advanced Simulation and Computing), and later the Joint Actinide Shock Physics Experimental Research (JASPER) facility, and the Z-Machine.9
By 1998, the SSP was well underway. Through its surveillance program it had identified an aging mechanism high explosives, worked to further understand the effects of corrosion, and developed new diagnostic tools, all designed to confirm that “the weapons [were] aging gracefully.”10 The second annual certification of the existing stockpile had been completed and “over nine thousand” nuclear weapons had been dismantled since the end of the Cold War.11
A year, later, in 1999, the stockpile stewardship program was placed under a brighter spotlight when the CTBT was put forward to the US Senate for ratification. The success of the SSP was again touted although, in testimony to the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, the Director of Sandia (C. Paul Robinson) noted that “confidence in the reliability and safety” of the nuclear deterrent would “eventually decline without nuclear testing…[and that] much of the erosion will be in the form of a shrinking base of experienced personnel who know how to perform the arcane responsibilities of stockpile stewardship.”12 Other testimony was more optimistic, with increased confidence being expressed in the “long-term credibility” of the stockpile and the ability of the SSP to provide that credibility.13 Ultimately, however, the CTBT failed to find support in the Senate, and the tradeoff – stockpile stewardship for CTBT support – remained unrealized.
Growing concerns and skepticism regarding the benefits of the SSP found increasing support in the U.S. Congress by 2000 – particularly with regard to the ability of the program to hit its milestones, stay on budget, and achieve its overall mandate. Such skepticism was predominant among those who advocated a return to testing and new weapons production. A Panel to Assess the Reliability, Safety, and Security of the United States Nuclear Stockpile had therefore been established in 1999, pursuant to that year’s Defense Authorization Act.14 The panel reported for fiscal years 1999, 2000, and 2001.
The “Foster Panel,” as it was colloquially known, issued its first report in November 1999 and was broadly, if modestly, supportive of the goals of science-based stockpile stewardship and the program’s ability “to provide a degree confidence in a credible nuclear deterrent.”15 It added, however, that “it will not be known for at least a decade and probably longer just how effective the Stockpile Stewardship Program will be.”16
A year later, and shortly after the new Bush administration had taken office, the panel reported again on its previous year’s work. This time, the tone and approach to the program had become more concerned. The report declared bluntly that it had found “a disturbing gap between the nation’s declaratory policy that maintenance of a safe and reliable nuclear stockpile is a supreme national interest and the actions taken to support this policy.”17 The panel in that year made a series of nine recommendations, including the reduction of test-readiness “to well below the Congressionally mandated one year.”18 This followed on from a more modest recommendation, the previous year, which had called for accelerated efforts “to understand and preserve test, development, and production data and insights.”19
The final report of the panel’s three-year tenure struck a tone somewhere between the first two, noting both progress made and lingering concerns. The Panel again called for enhanced test-readiness, this time of “no more than three months to a year.”20 (Notably, this reduced testing time had recently been called for in the Nuclear Posture Review, completed in late 2001. The Review had also, inter alia, rejected the CTBT.)
Over the following few years, increasing attention was directed at the SSP and, in particular, the life-extension program. Criticism came primarily on two fronts: budgetary and political. On the budgetary side, a GAO report called for improved budgeting and management process,21 while on the political side – as will be discussed shortly – the role of earth-penetrating nuclear weapons (Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrators, RNEP) was being reconsidered. Later, the development of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) was pursued, which sought to address the perceived shortcomings of the life-extension program and its ability to provide long-term confidence in the existing nuclear stockpile.
Nonetheless, the SSP – including the life extension program – proceeded with its work. The manufacturing of replacement plutonium “pits” (which, together with high explosives, constitute the primary stage of the nuclear explosive package) started again in 2007, for the W88 warhead. This represented the first time in nearly two decades that the pits had been manufactured, following the shutdown of the plutonium pit facility in Rocky Flats, Colorado. During this time, and following the 2006 congressional elections, support within the US Congress shifted away from RRW. The continuing intention to avoid nuclear testing meant that, even if only by default, support for the life extension and stockpile surveillance programs continued. Now, with the prospect of U.S. ratification of the CTBT once again on the horizon, the last ten years of work and findings by the SSP are again due to come under increased political and public scrutiny.
Cooperation with other nuclear-weapon States
Before turning to the political context and debates surrounding stockpile management, it is important to note that some level of cooperative stewardship has taken place as part of the US stockpile management. In particular, this cooperation has been with the United Kingdom and France.22 The UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) has its own stockpile stewardship program, but cooperates closely with the US pursuant to the 1958 UK/US Mutual Defense Agreement. France also participates in the US SSP, and its own form of the stockpile stewardship program is the Programme de Simulation des Essais Nucléaires (PaSEN), or the “Simulation Program.”
Cooperation with the Russian Federation, on the other hand, has traditionally taken place in “a more limited way.”23 More extensive cooperation on stockpile stewardship appears to have been constrained by concerns that assistance and information exchanges might benefit Russia militarily.24 The most obvious example of this concern came in the form of the rejection of Russia’s request for US computers for its own stockpile maintenance in 1996, when it was determined that the export of these computers would contravene the pre-existing boundaries on cooperation, set by the US: that cooperation in this sphere must be both unclassified and, of particular relevance to this request, must “not enhance the performance of Russian nuclear weapons or contribute to Russian nuclear weapons design.”25
The existing levels US-Russian cooperation on stockpile stewardship does not appear to have changed substantially since. Nonetheless, it was suggested – including by one former Director at Los Alamos – that this limited cooperation should be expanded. Specifically, it was proposed that such (unclassified) technical cooperation could include “the aging of plutonium, computational materials modeling, response of materials to dynamic and shock loading conditions, and a variety of experimental techniques using lasers, pulsed power, or accelerators.”26
In addition, it has been proposed that stockpile stewardship efforts could be integrated with other areas of US-Russian cooperation on securing nuclear materials – an area of collaboration and assistance that has, even against the backdrop of changing political circumstances, managed to remain comparatively stable. In particular, integration with Cooperative Threat Reduction, Materials Protection Control and Accounting, and the Global Threat Reduction Initiative have been identified as potentially fruitful areas of integration.27
The question of whether or how this might best be done, if at all, does not appear to have been revisited in years since this suggestion was made in 2004. Possible political benefits have been identified as the reduction of “the potential for any sort of Russian return to adversary status, and to help encourage [Russian] participation in international security policies and operations.”28 It is, however, unclear whether the risks of a Russian return to adversary status are sufficiently high that still greater cooperation on stockpile stewardship is warranted. Nonetheless, past cooperation on securing former weapons material, such as the HEU Purchase Agreement and, in particular, the verification of excess nuclear material from weapons programs developed during the 1996-2003 Trilateral Initiative (with the IAEA) opens the door to such integration, as has – more recently – the joint statement by Russian President Dmitriy A. Medvedev and US President Barack Obama on April 1, 2009. Still, pre-existing political, technical and military sensitivities remain regarding assistance in stockpile stewardship.
Political debate surrounding the SSP:

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