U.S. Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Life Extension Programs
Key Point: The end of nuclear explosive testing has resulted in the development and application of advanced processes for extending the service life of the warheads in the United States’ nuclear weapons stockpile. Extending the life of existing warheads helps to eliminate the need to build and test new weapons.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy that has “cradle to grave” responsibility for the nuclear weapons stockpile, performs alterations and modifications to the stockpile in order to sustain the warheads that underpin the U.S. nuclear deterrent. It also conducts routine nuclear weapon maintenance operations. Over the last decade, the NNSA, through the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP), accomplished changes to the stockpile through Life Extension Programs (LEPs), with the goal of extending the service life of the current weapons in the stockpile. The NNSA will continue to conduct LEPs as outlined in the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, in order to maintain the existing stockpile. LEPs will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities. The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads.
Prior to 1993, it was a routine practice for changes to warheads to be evaluated with underground nuclear explosive tests, in order to verify the relative effectiveness of these changes. Over the last two decades, the NNSA has completed several changes to nuclear warheads without performing underground nuclear explosive testing, due to improvements in computer simulation capabilities. Examples of NNSA’s success in maintaining the stockpile without nuclear explosive testing include the LEPs for the W87 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) warhead and B61‑7/11 strategic bomb, and the current W76-1 Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) warhead LEP.
The continued success of future changes to the stockpile (i.e., B61-12 strategic bomb and W78‑1 ICBM warhead) relies on continued support for the SSP. SSP tools and investments in the future form the basis for our ability to maintain a safe, secure and effective U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear explosive testing.