WASHINGTON – The Bush administration selected a design Friday for a new generation of atomic warheads, taking a major step toward building the first new nuclear weapon since the end of the Cold War nearly two decades ago.
The military and the Energy Department selected a design developed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California over a competing design by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
The decision to move ahead with the warhead, which eventually would replace the existing arsenal of weapons, has been criticized as sending the wrong signal to the world at a time when the United States is assailing attempts at nuclear weapons development in North Korea and Iran and striving to contain them.
But military and Energy Department officials said the new U.S. warhead will not add to the nuclear arsenal, but replace existing warheads with ones that are safer and more reliable.
"This is not about starting a new arms race," said Thomas P. D'Agostino, acting head of the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nuclear weapons programs.
D'Agostino said that both the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore designs were contingent on not requiring nuclear testing. If tests were required in a design, "We were not going to go forward," he said.
D'Agostino said that engineers over the next year will focus on developing cost estimates and defining the scope of the program and a schedule for its development. After that, decisions will be made on actually building the warhead.
The warhead has been the focus of an intense competition between Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore, the government's two premier nuclear weapons labs.
The two facilities submitted separate designs nearly a year ago. Lawrence Livermore's design is based on a warhead actually tested in an underground detonation in the 1980s. Los Alamos had a design based on a fresh approach that has not undergone testing.
One of the assurances given by defense officials to Congress is that the new warhead will not have to undergo actual testing. Once developed, it would be used in the Trident missiles on submarines and eventually would replace warheads on the Air Force's missile arsenal, officials said.
Administration officials, including the military, have argued that today's aging warheads are harder to maintain and as they age it will become more difficult to ensure their reliability.
The new design is advertised as being more robust with additional features to safeguard them against possible theft or misuse.
Of overriding concern to members of Congress has been that the warhead be developed without the need for underground tests. The administration has sought to assure Congress that the design would not require such testing.
The administration also argues that a phasing out of current warheads with the more modern design will allow additional reductions in the number of warheads that will be needed.
The decision Friday establishes a clear blueprint for designing the new warhead, officials said. A final go ahead is expected to be made by the president within two years, with the first warheads to be completed by 2012.
It has not been determined how much the program will cost. The administration asked Congress for $119 million for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 to push ahead with further design work.
Advocates for the warhead say it would give military commanders greater assurance of reliability and could speed the reduction of the deployed number of nuclear warheads from 6,000 to fewer than 2,000 by 2012.