Plutonium Pit Lifetime and the Trump Administration’s Disbanding of the JASONs

Reuters has an excellent special report, the fruit of good old fashioned investigative journalism, on some of the details behind the Trump administration’s move against the JASON group of independent scientific consultants to the Defense Department. The JASONs have a rich history, not all of it terribly pretty by the way. The Reuters report shows that Michael Griffin, the Pentagon’s Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, was critical here. Griffin is a long time proponent of space based interceptors for ballistic missile defence. The JASONs group have long argued against the viability of spaced based interceptors, and spaced based BMD is very much in the air again. It kind of goes with “it’s morning again in America.”

Now in previous posts here and here on all this I had argued that plutonium pit aging, and what was called the Reliable Replacement Warhead during the Bush era, were significant factors behind the Trump White House’s disbanding of the JASONs. The Reuters report, I contend, supports my initial analysis.

Space based missile interception doubtless is a factor. But there’s some interesting detail toward the end of the Reuters report which suggests that the matter of plutonium pit aging was important too, if not of the first importance. The article states,

“Disbanding the program would have had a ripple effect across U.S. government agencies that use Jason research. For the summer of 2019, the Jasons had been asked to conduct 15 separate studies by seven government agencies.”

It then goes on

“Another study was Congressionally mandated for the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, to examine the aging of nuclear weapon pits, the explosive core in many types of U.S. nuclear weapons. The agency had relied on Jason’s research for decades to help secure nuclear stockpiles.”

For that JASON study into plutonium pit aging to go ahead Griffin needed to extend JASONs life by a month, at no extra cost to the government. All it needed was Griffin’s signature. Nothing doing;

“Griffin, as head of the office that let out the contract, needed to approve the decision. He said no”…(snip)… “It appears they effectively tried to kill the program,” Williams told Reuters.”

Griffin’s mean spirited mania to purge JASON clearly was an attempt to prevent the JASONs from conducting an independent investigation into plutonium pit aging. Those who have long memories will recall that JASON studies into plutonium pit aging, and the design of the first planned “Reliable Replacement Warhead” (WR-1), during the George W Bush administration effectively killed off the RRW programme. The RRW programme was an ambitious plan to recapitalise the US nuclear weapons complex, and to develop new nuclear warheads. Since the end of the Cold War the US has had a Science Based Stockpile Stewardship programme maintaining the legacy warheads from the Cold War era. Some wanted the nuclear complex to do more, to go back into the business of researching, designing, and developing new nuclear weapons from scratch. They also wanted the development of a plutonium pit manufacturing capacity able to “surge” the stockpile to Cold War era levels if required. It’s so much more sexier developing new nuclear warheads.

RRW supporters argued stockpile stewardship was flawed because instabilities and impurities would build up in plutonium pits over time, leaving the US with an unreliable, hence not terribly credible, nuclear deterrent. Democrats in Congress, who then had the numbers (and to no small degree in response to grassroots campaigns), commissioned the JASONs to study plutonium pit aging. The JASONs reported that plutonium pits have a reliable lifetime of at least 85 years and up to 100 years. But not everyone agreed with this, not least some from within the nuclear weapons complex. So, Physics Today reported in July 2018

“We disagree significantly” with the JASON findings, says LANL director Terry Wallace; he notes that pit aging extends to how plutonium interacts with other components of the pit and weapon. Siegfried Hecker, a plutonium expert who was LANL director from 1986 to 1997, also takes issue with the JASON conclusions, which he says led to a “dramatic decline” in research on pit aging. Hecker maintains that despite differences, scientists at LANL and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory were pressured to reach a consensus on aging that could be reviewed by JASON, and key aging issues were left unresolved. He also notes that since the JASON review, a reinterpretation by LANL researchers of results from underground experiments suggests the need to revise pit lifetime estimates.”

The hawkish Republican congresswoman, Elizabeth Cheney, earlier this year made the absurd claim that plutonium pits are now 100 years old. Why 100, exactly? Because of the Bush era JASON study on plutonium pit lifetimes, that’s why. When Cheney says plutonium pits are 100 years old she’s saying it’s time for RRW.

Don’t be thinking that the Reliable Replacement Warhead has been forgotten. The Trump administration’s move to wrap up the JASONs may be related to a renewed push to revive the Reliable Replacement Warhead programme. I think the Reuters investigative report at the very least suggests this.

As I read the report, my attention was drawn to another Reuters report, this time on the remarks made by Russia’s ambassador to the UN’s Conference on Disarmament. Reuters reports the Russian representative saying, in regard to US allegations Moscow has conducted clandestine low yield nuclear weapon tests,

“It would appear that through propaganda around false claims about Russia’s compliance there are attempts to prepare international opinion for a U.S. exit from the CTBT and then to blame Russia again for everything,” the Russian diplomat said.”

These two stories could turn out to be very much related. Let us watch this space.

Oh, and yes, I do hear that North Korea has fired off some missiles again. More on that soon enough.

This entry was posted in International Relations and Global Security, Philosophy and Science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.