Nuclear War? It’s the Pits

January 18th, 2023 - by Matthew Gault / Vice

The Pentagon’s plan for 80 new plutonium pits per year by 2030 doesn’t look possible.

The US Can’t Make Enough Plutonium
Triggers for Its Nuclear Warheads

Matthew Gault / Vice

(January 13, 2023) — American power relies on the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. One of the reasons the US military is so powerful is that the country is sitting on more than 5,000 potential world-ending nuclear weapons. But those nukes are aging and America hasn’t been building more. The Pentagon’s goal is to spin up production and make 80 plutonium pits—the trigger mechanism for nukes—a year by 2030. A new report from federal investigators said that’s a pipe dream.

A nuclear pit is a hollow ball of plutonium. On a basic level, nuclear weapons work by surrounding one of these balls with high-explosives. When the high explosives go off, they apply uniform pressure to the plutonium pit and cause a nuclear explosion. They are a key ingredient in nuclear weapons, but America hasn’t made a new one since 1989.

America’s nuclear infrastructure is crumbling and in desperate need of modernization, according to the Pentagon. To keep America’s nukes running, the Pentagon wants to start production again. According to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), it’s not going well.

This isn’t shocking. The National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) warned Congress in 2022 that the official plan to meet a deadline of 80 pits produced per year by 2030 wasn’t going to happen.

According to the GAO, the NNSA doesn’t even know how much it will cost to create the infrastructure to build these pits, what resources it will need, or how long the project will take. “According to officials, such a life cycle cost estimate has not been completed because of concerns about releasing preliminary or uncertain information,” the report said.

For a brief period after the end of the Cold War it seemed like broad nuclear disarmament might be possible. That didn’t happen and now the US is falling behind on modernization goals it set for itself.

US nuclear weapons programs have been marred by problems for the past decade. After the end of the Cold War, people and government officials began to ignore nuclear weapons. Neglected, missiles and bombs capable of ending the world began to age. At Los Alamos, where plutonium pits are made, safety lapses have stalled work repeatedly in the past few years.

The US Command and Control computers were still using large floppy disks as recently as 2019. And Airmen watching over Minuteman nuclear missiles admitted to dropping acid while on the job in 2015 and 2016.

There is a renewed nuclear arms race with China and Russia. Moscow had repeatedly made nuclear threats during its invasion of Ukraine and Putin has teased new advanced nuclear weapons over the past five years. China, which once had a relatively low amount of nuclear weapons for a global superpower, has been building more.

Meanwhile, America has pushed to modernize its nuclear forces. The US Air Force is building a new intercontinental-ballistic missile and revealed a new stealth bomber last year with the fanfare of a Super Bowl halftime show. But these fancy new weapons require plutonium cores, and it doesn’t look like the US can build them fast enough.

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