by Cheryl Rofer and Molly Cernicek
When the Soviet Union collapsed, it was easy to give up the terror of imminent nuclear war. The enemy was gone, and with it the threat. The first half of the eighties had been particularly frightening, with medically incapable Soviet leaders and the Reagan missile buildup in Europe. The last half of the eighties remained rocky but began the build-down of those European intermediate-range missiles with the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. That was followed by a relatively peaceful, but still unsettling, set of actions in the Soviet Union – an attempted coup followed by the breakup – that could have led to nuclear war under a leader less cool than Mikhail Gorbachev.
There was much talk about a “peace dividend” in the nineties. The US and Russia stopped building nuclear weapons, and even took some out of service. What we did with them after that was not so well-defined; no treaty addressed that.
President Obama promised an end to nuclear weapons in Prague, and the expressions of disappointment that we have not achieved that goal are beginning to mount. It’s been eleven months, after all. But let’s see what he said:
So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, "Yes, we can."In the last few weeks, President Obama has requested generous funding for the weapons laboratories and Vice President Biden supported that with a speech at the National Defense University. Speculation continues on the contents of the Nuclear Posture Review, delayed until March 14, and of the START agreement being negotiated. Both of them are part of what Obama promised at Prague.
Now, let me describe to you the trajectory we need to be on. First, the United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same. Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies – including the Czech Republic. But we will begin the work of reducing our arsenal.
To reduce our warheads and stockpiles, we will negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians this year. President Medvedev and I began this process in London, and will seek a new agreement by the end of this year that is legally binding and sufficiently bold. And this will set the stage for further cuts, and we will seek to include all nuclear weapons states in this endeavor.
To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.
A news report last week discussed the progress in disassembling the nuclear warheads that have been taken out of service. The problems being encountered are a direct result of the aging nuclear complex and the political issues. Although the article speculates on the message that the administration may or may not be interested in sending, it ignores the political and engineering realities underlying the problems.
The United States and the Soviet Union had 70,000 or more nuclear warheads in the late 1960s. They now have something like 25,000. That means that 45,000 have been disassembled, not a bad record for a couple of decades utilizing dated and deficient infrastructure.
In the United States, the only place disassembly is done at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas. The Pantex Plant is also where the weapons were assembled and where they are inspected and modified. The cells in which assembly and disassembly are done are called Gravel Gerties; they are designed to contain weapon material in case of a conventional explosion. The operations are exacting: conventional explosives, fission and fusion fuel, and the electronics that control the weapons are brought together or taken apart.
It’s a commonplace that weapons are made to be used, not disassembled. Nuclear weapons are no exception. Radioactive materials must be separated from conventional explosives. Some degradation of the materials takes place while the weapons are in storage, making disassembly more unpredictable than assembly. That’s why they are disassembled in the Gravel Gerties.
There are thirteen Gravel Gerties. This number, and the number of shifts a day, determines the rate at which nuclear weapons can be assembled, disassembled, inspected, and modified.
The existing nuclear weapons have to be maintained, a continuing process. Non-nuclear parts may be replaced by newer versions, or they may be checked for deterioration. Those operations have been increased over the past year, crowding out disassembly, according to the NTI article. Some unspecified capital improvements have been made to increase the rate of disassembly.
Increasing the rate of disassembly would be something that the Obama administration could publicize as part of moving toward zero. Hans Kristensen, of the Federation of American Scientists, sees a conflict between the administration’s stated goals and the ongoing operations:
To Kristensen, an initiative to boost dismantlement reflects "the schizophrenic nature of the Obama administration's nuclear policy, which is that on the one hand we are impressing on the world that we have a new plan for nuclear disarmament, and on the other hand we're vastly prioritizing extending the life of nuclear warheads over retiring old ones."But Obama said that the nuclear deterrent would be maintained.
There are other ways to speed up disassembly or to show good faith in dismantling weapons. The Department of Energy has been campaigning for new facilities for some time. A new facility equivalent to Pantex would allow for more operations, but it would be costly, would require several years to design and build, and would be taken by some to be an expansion of weapons production because it could also be used to assemble new ones.
Another way to show good faith would be to melt the plutonium pits down into ingots or oxide, to be stored or used in nuclear reactor fuel. The pits are now being stored and could be reassembled into weapons relatively easily. A program to develop the process line for decommissioning the pits was active in the 1990s, but ended before it was completed. I’m not sure whether it has been resuscitated, but some of the plant for such a process is being built. (Full disclosure: CKR was in charge of the canning component of the project.)
This brings us back to the funding for the weapons laboratories. The situation at those laboratories is awful. Morale seems like it couldn’t go any lower, and there is little direction. Weapons designers, or people with similar skills, will be needed to maintain the stockpile, which will not disappear overnight. The national laboratories also do cutting-edge research in fields like epidemiology, robotics, nanotechnology and oil and renewable energies. Moving more decisively into these directions would be desirable from the point of view of the workers at the labs, but it has faced insuperable obstacles, about which we’ll say more in future posts.
And the weapons labs can deep-six the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Although Republican politics were largely responsible for the failure of the Senate to ratify the treaty in 1999, a stronger case for the treaty by the directors of the weapons laboratories might have made a difference. So the increased funding can be seen as, yes, a buy-off. It will not solve of the laboratories’ problems, but it will prevent layoffs. Additionally, it will maintain status quo or a slight improvement for the companies involved in nuclear weapons throughout the country. These companies also figure in support for the CTBT.