In the Shade of the Boojum

Stockpile stewardship is all about the reliability and maintenance of the nuclear weapons

Boojum Tree

Boojum Tree

that are in the U.S. nuclear inventory. No longer can a representative sample of any weapon design be hauled to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Nevada Test Site and tested. One would think that somewhere on the government’s landscape would be Joe’s Nuke Shop; Special this month on reliability; All maintenance done at a reasonable rates by certified technicians. While every other nation in the world probably knows the exact status of the U.S. stockpile, it is kept a deep, dark secret from the taxpayers. Getting a handle on how reliable the U.S. stockpile is today and how well it is maintained is a parody on Lewis Carrolls’ The Hunting of the Snark (An Agony in 8 Fits). A good synopsis of the plot is available: [1]

“After crossing the sea guided by the Bellman’s map of the Ocean—a blank sheet of paper—the hunting party The_Hunting_of_the_Snark_by_pyxelatedarrive (sic) in a strange land. The Baker recalls that his uncle once warned him that, though catching Snarks is all well and good, you must be careful; for, if your Snark is a Boojum, then you will softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again. With this in mind, they split up to hunt. Along the way, the Butcher and Beaver -previously mutually wary for the Butcher’s specialty in preparing beavers- become fast friends, the Barrister falls asleep and dreams of a court trial defended by the Snark, and the Banker loses his sanity after being attacked by a frumious Bandersnatch. At the end, the Baker calls out that he has found a Snark; but when the others arrive he has mysteriously disappeared, ‘For the Snark was a Boojum, you see’.”

One of the first things I learned at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) was that the National Labs, Livermore (LLNL), Los Alamos (LANL), and DNA tested ‘physics packages’ and, following testing, some of the ‘physics packages’ tested by LLNL and LANL might be weaponized by the military. The DNA physics packages were mostly looking at nuclear effects. Another prominent player at NTS was the Sandia National Laboratories. Sandia developed and tested the non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons and participated as an experimenter during the nuclear tests. My job supported the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA), which was absorbed in a consolidation of several Department of Defense (DoD) agencies and is now the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). Stockpile testing was performed by either Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories depending upon the type of weapon.

Civilians tested; the military turned them into weapons. Worked for me! All of the nuclear

Nukes

Nukes

materials were produced at various Department of Energy (DOE) sites and DOE’s Pantex facility performed the necessary assembly and disassembly. Civilian rather than military personnel were responsible for the science and design. I was told that the Truman Administration had established that pecking order. There were, according to reports, many long, passionate debates among the politicians, nuclear scientists, and the military as to who should do what, to whom, and why in the business of the atom. In 1946, Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act codifying the civilian-military nuclear waltz.[2]  I always liked the symmetry of the process; it felt as though checks and balances were in place.

Nuclear weapons come in all shapes and sizes from as small as artillery shells to packages that weigh several hundred pounds. As opposed to the varieties of the packaging, the physics of nuclear weapons is fairly straightforward:[3]

  1. Fission Weapons: Also called atomic bombs, use only fission reactions as a source of energy.
  2. Uranium Gun-Type Device (HEU): Is a relatively simple device because it does not require sophisticated explosive or electronic components.
  3. Implosion Design (Plutonium or HEU): Is a fission weapon that uses explosives to rapidly compress one or more spheres of fissile material into a critical mass.
  4. Fusion Weapons: Uses the fusion of deuterium and tritium, both heavy isotopes of hydrogen, releases energy as well as a neutron with seven times more energy than a fission neutron.
  5. (Fusion) Boosted Fission Weapons:  Fusion takes advantage of high energy neutron collisions to speed up the chain reaction, which increases the efficiency by a hundred-fold. It is used in almost every deployed nuclear weapon.
  6. Thermonuclear Weapons (Hydrogen Bombs): These are the really big boys with explosions in the megatons. The destructive energy is the result of three separate but nearly simultaneous explosions. Huge explosive power packed into small, light-weight packages that can be delivered by missiles is the hallmark of these babies.

The good news is that the number and diversity of nuclear weapons continues its downward trend. According to the Nuclear Weapons Archives, the U.S. has manufactured about 70,000 nuclear weapons using over 70 different designs. By 1991, the U.S.was maintaining 26 designs and about 23,000 nuclear weapons. If the treaty signed by President Obama and President Medvedev in 2010 is being honored, we are approaching a stockpile of something under 2,000 nuclear weapons with less than seven designs.

The bad news is that the nuclear stockpile is old; well past its projected life. Fewer numbers of designs means an increased risk of single point failure. Further, the DOE infrastructure to support nuclear weapons has been effectively dismantled as has the brain trust. Just getting enough tritium might be tough today. The nuclear physicists, engineers, and technicians are also aging, making it difficult to locate something as simple as the as-builts on the weapons.

After the last nuclear test in 1992, DOE and the national labs began using simulations as a mechanism for determining the health of the stockpile. By the time I left the NTS, DOE had constructed a special facility to allow sub-critical testing for measurements and modeling. LANL now has a magnificent supercomputer upon which it may intricately model the weapons, and their behavior, based on past experience and the current condition of the chemistry and physics. In Amarillo, Texas,  Pantex still assembles and dissembles the weapons and plutonium ‘pits’, spheres of plutonium metal, are still manufactured to replace spent or dicey ‘pits’.  What is left of DOE’s production facilities supply what they can. The DOE hopes to modernize the stockpile but they must tread very carefully. If the scientists deviate too much from the existing designs, they will venture into unknown territory with no way to test the nuclear package. Last but not least the Defense Threat Reduction Agency is responsible for knowing where the stockpile weapons are located and inspecting them.

Now that the map to the Snark is drawn and the paper is no longer blank, we must ask where we are. I do not trust modeling. More money has been spent to model the weather than just about any other natural phenomena and forecasters get it wrong all of the time. Modeling is a tool that should be used in concert with testing. Based on tests, the model gets tweaked and becomes a bit better. Improvement is iterative.

Nuclear weapons are not static, they are closer to living than dead. The radioactive components of nuclear weapons are constantly striving to become something other than what they are. In their effort to attain nuclear nirvana, they naturally emit bits and pieces of ionizing radiation. It is why they are called radioactive. Many people toss the word decay about with abandon and without explanation. What it means is that these radioactive divas keep losing energy to reach their goal of stability. During the process an atom of the original material, called the parent radionuclide, changes to an atom with a different number of protons and neutrons, which is called a daughter nuclide. Check out the Periodic Table[4] and you’ll see that eventually the radioactive material becomes some other material. It is called transmutation.

The point is, people spend a lifetime studying this phenomenon and new discoveries are made all of the time. Computer modeling can’t forecast the weather and it sure is not the be all and end all of monitoring our nuclear stockpile. The stockpile stewards in the DOE and military families know this and keep improving the data and the science but the money to do that is provided through Congress and Congress is plagued with attention deficit disorder. They cannot pass a budget, let alone deal with something as complicated as the demands of the nuclear stockpile.

Someday, perhaps soon, the nation will want to either abolish the stockpile or test it and everyone who ever handled nuclear testing will be dead. Russia is doing some nuclear stretching. It is recalling scientists to service and improving facilities. Russia, you see, never drop kicked her scientists like the U.S. did.  The U.S. federal government paid nuclear scientists in Russia, Ukraine, Libya, Kazakhstan, and other places to work on other technologies.  Back at home, though, we let most of the nuclear workforce go to wherever they could.

_92783_india_nuc300Perhaps the reliability and maintenance of our nuclear stockpile needs to be revisited. Perhaps the dismantled infrastructure needs to be evaluated. Given the world situation and the state of government, reasonable Americans ought to at least have the conversation. Ignoring the dangers of a degraded stockpile and refusing to face the fact that we can no longer effectively predict our country’s ability to defend itself will not make the individual safer. Ignore the federal government’s agenda and the media interpretation; think for yourself. Perhaps it is time we listened to music. Do you remember the song One Tin Soldier? It begins[5]:

On the mountain was a treasure Buried deep beneath the stone, And the valley-people swore They’d have it for their very own…

And it ends:

There won’t be any trumpets blowing Come the judgement day, On the bloody morning after….One tin soldier rides away.

There’s a lesson there, I think. Let us not bask in the shade of the Boojum with a blank sheet of paper for a map. Let us not quietly disappear. Irrespective of conventional wisdom, the power to change the world resides within each individual lending his or her creativity and skills to a solution rather than with the protagonist Borg. Let us pick up our brains and rally for basic common sense before that bloody morning arrives when one tin soldier rides away.

 

 



[2]  The Atomic Energy Commission; Alice Buck; July 1983; http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/AEC%20History.pdf

[3]  DTIRP Outreach Program, Defense Threat Reduction Agency; http://dtirp.dtra.mil/NC/nc_References/weapons.aspx

[4] Periodic Table; http://www.ptable.com/

[5] One Tin Soldier (The Legend of Billy Jack); http://www.scoutsongs.com/lyrics/onetinsoldier.html

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