updated 11/20/2009 7:23:18 PM ET 2009-11-21T00:23:18

An independent panel says the U.S. can extend the life of aging nuclear weapons for decades with existing programs, a finding that activists contend means there's no need for the nation to design replacements for the nuclear arsenal.

The findings of the JASON committee are classified, but an unclassified summary released Thursday said current methods are sufficient to keep weapons reliable in the absence of nuclear testing.

The committee, made up of independent scientific experts who do technical reviews for the government, said the success of the program to extend the lifetimes of weapons "is a direct consequence of the excellent work of the people in the United States nuclear weapons complex."

The key conclusion is that the program "is working well and can work well into the foreseeable future to maintain the reliability of existing warhead types," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.

The implication is that new warhead designs are not necessary because "stockpile stewardship is working well and can be expected to work indefinitely," he said.

The two national laboratories in New Mexico, Los Alamos and Sandia, are involved in the stockpile stewardship program to ensure the reliability of the nuclear stockpile.

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group said the study shows "there are no inherent long-term reliability problems associated with the careful refurbishment of existing types of warheads."

Stockpile surveillance
Congress has rejected efforts to develop what's called a reliable replacement warhead. In 2007, the Bush administration unsuccessfully sought $88 million for design and preliminary work on the proposed warhead.

The National Nuclear Security Administration endorsed the panel's recommendations and sent the classified report to the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, which asked for the review.

The study "validates our basic scientific approach to warhead life extension programs, specifically our commitment to evaluating each weapon system on a case-by-case basis and applying the best technological approach," NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera said in a written statement.

The panel said some issues surrounding aging weapons have been resolved, and others can be resolved under current methods.

But it also warned that stockpile surveillance is becoming inadequate. It said increasing the lifetimes of nuclear weapons depends on "continuing maintenance and renewal of expertise and capabilities in science, technology, engineering and production."

LaVera said Friday stockpile stewardship "can do certain things but there needs to be an existing funding mechanism for that."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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