Biggest US Nuclear Bomb Dismantled -- While the US Continues to Build More Bombs
October 29, 2011
Associated Press & Mike Shuster / National Public Radio & The Guardian
The last of the nation's biggest nuclear bombs, a Cold War relic 600 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, has been dismantled -- a milestone in Barack Obama's mission to rid the world of nuclear weapons. However, the same facilities that dismantle nuclear warheads currently give priority to refurbishing existing US warheads. The US is actually building more nuclear weapons than it is dismantling. That didn't use to be the case, but it is now.
Biggest US Nuclear Bomb Dismantled in Texas
Cold War relic 600 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima dismantled as part of US nuclear policy
AMARILLO, Texas (October 25, 2011) -- The last of the nation's biggest nuclear bombs, a Cold War relic 600 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, has been dismantled in what one energy official called a milestone in President Barack Obama's mission to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
Workers in Texas separated the roughly 300lb (136kg) of high explosives inside from the special nuclear material -- uranium -- known as the pit.
The work was done outside of public view for security reasons, but explosives from a bomb taken apart earlier were detonated as officials and reporters watched from less than a mile (1.6 kilometers) away.
The deputy secretary of energy, Daniel Poneman, called the disassembly "a milestone accomplishment." The completion of the dismantling program is a year ahead of schedule, according to the US Department of Energy's national nuclear security administration, and aligns with Obama's goal of reducing the number of nuclear weapons.
Put into service in 1962, when Cold War tensions peaked during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the B53 weighed 10,000lb (4,500 kg) and was the size of a minivan. Many of the bombs were disassembled in the 1980s, but a significant number remained in the US arsenal until they were retired from the stockpile in 1997.
The B53's disassembly ends the era of big megaton bombs, said Hans Kristensen, a spokesman for the Federation of American Scientists. The biggest nuclear bomb in the nation's arsenal now is the 1.2-megaton B83, he said. The B53 was 9 megatons.
The 15-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of the second World War killed as many as 140,000 people.
The B53s' size helped compensate for their lack of accuracy, Kristensen said. Today's bombs are smaller but more precise, reducing the amount of collateral damage, he said.
Kristensen said the Obama administration should not boast too much about dismantling the B53 when its arsenal of active nuclear warheads has been reduced by only 10 in the past seven months and Russia's arsenal has grown by 29. The two nations signed a treaty in December to reduce their arsenals.
Since the B53 was made using older technology by engineers who have since retired or died, developing a disassembly process took time. Engineers had to develop complex tools and new procedures to ensure safety.
"We knew going in that this was going to be a challenging project, and we put together an outstanding team with all of our partners to develop a way to achieve this objective safely and efficiently," said John Woolery, general manager of the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, where the bomb was taken apart.
The plant is the nation's only nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility. This was the first time in 18 years media were allowed into secure places there. Hallways in one building had pictures of nuclear blasts from tests hanging on the walls. Riding in a bus one could see areas in the 16,000-acre (6,500-hectare) facility, one of the nation's most secure sites, where plutonium pits and other weapons materials are stored.
The B53's pit will be kept there temporarily, Pantex spokesman Greg Cunningham said. Meanwhile, the remaining non-nuclear material and components will be processed, which includes sanitizing, recycling and disposal, the National Nuclear Security Administration said last fall when it announced the Texas plant's role in the B53 dismantling.
US Dismantles The Biggest Of Its Cold War Nukes
Mike Shuster / National Public Radio
WASSHINGTON, DC (October 29, 2011) -- This past week, the US dismantled the last of its largest nuclear bombs, the B53. This was a Dr. Strangelove bomb, conjuring up images of Armageddon and apocalypse. At the same time, one of the smallest warheads was also removed from the nuclear arsenal.
These are steps the US is taking apart from its arms control agreements with Russia. And thousands more American nuclear weapons are slated for destruction in a process that could take a decade or more.
The B53 was the size of a minivan and weighed 4 1/2 tons. Its destructive power was 600 times that of the Hiroshima bomb dropped on Japan at the end of World War II.
"This is a Cold War relic -- there's no continuing need for it. And it shows the direction of our future," says Dan Poneman, the deputy secretary of energy.
The United States built 340 of these huge bombs. Several were tested in the atmosphere in the South Pacific. They were so big that only two could fit in a B-52 bomber. Between 1962 and 1967, there were 24 of them on continuous alert in the air ready to be dropped over the Soviet Union.
Those flights were ended more than 40 years ago, but B53s remained in the active US arsenal until 1997. It's taken the past 14 years to dismantle them.
"It's hard to understand how much destructive power this 9-megaton monster had," says Joe Cirincione, a longtime analyst of nuclear weapons policy and now president of the Ploughshares Fund. "It would dig a crater 750-feet deep. It would kill everything within a 9- or 10-mile radius, and spread radioactivity for hundreds of miles around the blast site," he says.
Smaller Bombs Also Dismantled
The much smaller W70 met a similar fate a week ago. It had been deployed on tactical missiles, which have been withdrawn from service. But there are still thousands of US nuclear weapons in line for destruction, says Poneman. "As we move to a world of less reliance on nuclear weapons, we're going to be retiring other systems as well," he says.
It could take 10 years or longer to get that job done, says Cirincione.
"The same facilities that dismantle US nuclear warheads are also refurbishing US warheads," he said. "And right now a decision has been made to prioritize refurbishment. So we're actually building more nuclear weapons than we're dismantling. That didn't use to be the case, but it is now."
Right now, the US is dismantling about 250 warheads a year at the Pantex nuclear plant in Amarillo, Texas. The process is much slower than it used to be, says Bruce Blair, co-founder of Global Zero, a bipartisan group that supports the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons.
"In the 1990s, the United States was dismantling at a rate three times the rate of today," he said. "Partly that's because we were not refurbishing a lot of weapons and extending their life spans. And now we have a plan, just the next 10 years, we're supposed to be extending the life, the longevity, of roughly 2,000 strategic, high-yield nuclear weapons."
The US still has some 1,800 strategic warheads deployed, a thousand on land- and sea-based missiles that could be launched in 12 minutes -- and another 2,500 in reserve. These are the warheads that are being refurbished and that have slowed the dismantling process.
"At the rate that we're dismantling now, which is around 250 or so weapons per year, a weapon that is ready to be retired and be destroyed may not get to Pantex for actual dismantling for 10 years, because the queue is so long."
How long is that queue? Poneman would only say it's a goodly number. Other sources say there could be as many as 4,000 bombs in warehouses awaiting destruction.
Nuclear Weapons: How Many Are There and Who Has Them? (2009 Figures)
LONDON (September 6, 2009) -- Latest data on how many nuclear weapons there are in the world shows that -- even with some being dismantled -- there are still 23,574. Find out who has what [Charts and graphs online].
Are we headed for a nuclear-free world? News that the US is abandoning the missile defense system has brought renewed attention to the issue of nuclear proliferation. The thing is, counting nuclear weapons is a bit like counting votes -- a lot depends on who is doing the counting, and how.
The disarmament treaty currently being negotiated between the US and Russia applies to deployed strategic warheads, along with their delivery systems, but that leaves out most of the weapons both countries are sitting on.
It does not apply to short-range, tactical weapons like nuclear artillery shells, depth charges and anti-ballistic missiles, of which the US has an estimated 500 and Russia has about 2,000. They do not represent an immediate threat to either of the nuclear superpowers, so they have been left to one side, although they represent a significant proliferation risk.
Such warheads, being smaller, are arguably easier to steal. Then there is the distinction between deployed, reserve and retired warheads. The new deal, like the 2002 Moscow Treaty, deals with deployed warheads, that are installed atop missiles ready to fire, or in the form of bombs ready to load on to planes.
But there is a lot more destructive force sitting in the American and Russian warehouses in the form of reserve arsenals. Much of the disarmament of recent years has involved warheads being removed from missiles and stored in bunkers, under constant maintenance.
They can be reunited with their missiles in a matter of days or weeks. In the case of gravity bombs, the distinction between deployed and reserve stockpiles is even more blurred. In the American case, for example, it depends on whether they are stored on 'forward' air bases in Europe, or back in the US.
The third category is 'retired for dismantlement'. The warheads are separated from their delivery systems and warehoused without maintenance.
In some cases, trigger mechanisms are removed to prevent them blowing up unexpectedly. They are supposed to be taken apart, but in reality the wait can last years. The US has 4,200 such warheads and is only dismantling them at the rate of 270 a year. Russia is thought to have about 8,000 non-deployed warheads, but it is unclear how many are in reserve and how many retired. The best guess by independent nuclear experts is that the overwhelming majority of that number is retired awaiting dismantlement.
Despite the fact the retired stockpiles represent the biggest category of nuclear weapons out there they are not normally counted as part of each country's arsenal for the purposes of treaties, even though no technical reason they could not be put back into service relatively fast if international tensions took a sudden turn for the worse.
The data here -- updated with the latest figures on the US and Russia -- is from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists -- the world's best source of nuclear information.
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