updated 9/30/2007 3:40:03 PM ET 2007-09-30T19:40:03

The U.S. is dismantling unneeded nuclear warheads at a faster pace than forecast as it substantially reduces its atomic arsenal under terms of an arms control treaty with Russia, government officials said Sunday.

The Bush administration planned to announce Monday that it has taken apart three times as many reserve warheads in the just-completed budget year than it had projected and expects the rapid pace of dismantlement to continue.

At the same time, a report by an independent science advisory group has concluded that “substantial work remains” before a new generation of warheads will be fit for certification without underground nuclear testing.

The findings are expected to provide congressional opponents of the warhead program with additional reasons to hold back money for the project. The administration views development of the replacement warhead as essential for keeping a secure and more easily maintained nuclear stockpile as warheads age.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, part of the Energy Department, reports a 146 percent increase in dismantled nuclear warheads during the 2007 budget year, which ended Sunday. That is triple the agency’s original goal.

The agency is believed to be dismantling thousands of warheads, taking out their plutonium, uranium and non-nuclear high explosive components. The agency did not said how many warheads it had taken apart, nor how many remain to be worked on because the numbers are classified.

The progress “sends a clear message to the world that this administration remains committed to reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile,” said the agency’s administrator, Thomas D’Agostino.

Reducing to half of 1950s stockpile
The government will not provide any numbers on the overall size of the nuclear stockpile, but there are believed to be nearly 6,000 warheads that either are deployed or in active reserve.

Under the 2002 treaty with Russia, the U.S. is committed to reducing the number of deployed warheads to between 1,700 and 2200 by 2012.

Three years ago, President Bush said he wanted the overall stockpile reduced to half of what it was in the 1950s, or to a level of about one-quarter of its size at the end of the Cold War.

The group of scientists who regularly advise the government on nuclear weapons matters has told Congress that the proposed replacement warhead will require further development and experiments to assure against possible failure, absent actual underground testing.

“Substantial work remains on the physical understanding” of the mechanisms involved to assure the warhead will perform reliably, according to a report to Congress on Friday.

Officials at the nuclear agency said they were gratified that the report supported the idea that the replacement warhead can be developed without actually detonating a device in an underground test. That has been an important criteria for moving forward with the program if Congress provides money.

D’Agostino says the warhead is necessary to make the nuclear arsenal more secure, safer and reliable in the future.

“We embrace the ideas of continued study and peer review,” he said in a statement in response to the report.

Last May, the agency chose a research effort at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California for the replacement warhead. The administration hopes to develop a clearer timetable and cost estimate for the project in the next year, but so far some members of Congress have been skeptical about the program.

The House stripped away money for the replacement warhead program from the Energy Department’s upcoming budget, while the Senate agreed to only partially fund the program. A final budget has yet to be approved in Congress.

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