Nuclear Weapon Declassification Decisions, 2011-2015

The Department of Energy issued twenty “declassification determinations” between April 2011 and March 2015 to remove certain specified categories of nuclear weapons-related information from classification controls.

“The fact that a mass of 52.5 kg of U-235 is sufficient for a gun-assembled weapon” was formally declassified in a written decision dated August 19, 2014.

The “total inventory of thorium at DOE sites for any given time period” was removed from the Restricted Data category on March 20, 2013.

The “existence of unlimited life neutron generators” was declassified on October 24, 2013.

As a result of such determinations, the specified information need no longer be redacted from documents undergoing declassification review, and it can also be incorporated freely in new unclassified documents.

So, for example, the fact that “The total United States Government inventory of plutonium on September 30, 2009 was 95.4 metric tons” was declassified on December 20, 2011.

This decision enabled the release of The United States Plutonium Balance, 1944-2009, a report published in June 2012. (“The aim of this publication is to provide, in a transparent manner, comprehensive and up-to-date data to regulators, public interest organizations, and the general public. Knowledge of the current U.S. plutonium balance and the locations of these materials is needed to understand the Department’s plutonium storage, safety, and security strategies.”)

The Department of Energy’s declassification determinations from 2011-2015 were released by DOE this week under the Freedom of Information Act. They are posted here in reverse chronological order, along with previous DOE declassification decisions.

The DOE declassification actions were performed in compliance with the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, in which Congress mandated a “continuous review of Restricted Data… in order to determine which information may be declassified and removed from the category of Restricted Data without undue risk to the common defense and security.”

US Nuclear Weapons Base In Italy Eyed By Alleged Terrorists

Ghedi_Ex2014
Italian security forces practice protection of US nuclear weapons at Ghedi Air Base in 2014.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Two suspected terrorists arrested by the Italian police allegedly were planning an attack against the nuclear weapons base at Ghedi.

The base stores 20 US B61 nuclear bombs earmarked for delivery by Italian PA-200 Tornado fighter-bombers in war. Nuclear security and strike exercises were conducted at the base in 2014. During peacetime the bombs are under the custody of the US Air Force 704th Munitions Support Squadron (MUNSS), a 130-personnel strong units at Ghedi Air Base.

The Italian police said at a press conference today that the two men in their conversations “were referring to several targets, particularly the Ghedi military base” near Brescia in northern Italy.

Ghedi Air Base is one of several national air bases in Europe that a US Air Force investigation in 2008 concluded did not meet US security standards for nuclear weapons storage. Since then, the Pentagon and NATO have spent tens of millions of dollars and are planning to spend more to improve security at the nuclear weapons bases in Europe.

There are currently approximately 180 US B61 bombs deployed in Europe at six bases in five NATO countries: Belgium (Kleine Brogel AB), Germany (Buchel AB), Italy (Aviano AB and Ghedi AB), the Netherlands (Volkel AB), and Turkey (Incirlik AB).

Over the next decade, the B61s in Europe will be modernized and, when delivered by the new F-35A fighter-bomber, turned into a guided nuclear bomb (B61-12) with greater accuracy than the B61s currently deployed in Europe. Aircraft integration of the B61-12 has already started.

Read also:

Italy’s Nuclear Anniversary: Fake Reassurance For a King’s Ransom

B61 LEP: Increasing NATO Nuclear Capability and Precision Low-Yield Strikes

This publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

Pentagon Report: China Deploys MIRV Missile

By Hans M. Kristensen

The biggest surprise in the Pentagon’s latest annual report on Chinese military power is the claim that China’s ICBM force now includes the “multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV)-equipped Mod 3 (DF-5).”

This is (to my knowledge) the first time the US Intelligence Community has made a public claim that China has fielded a MIRVed missile system.

If so, China joins the club of four other nuclear-armed states that have deployed MIRV for decades: Britain, France, Russia and the United States.

For China to join the MIRV club strains China’s claim of having a minimum nuclear deterrent. It is another worrisome sign that China – like the other nuclear-armed states – are trapped in a dynamic technological nuclear arms competition. Continue reading

Obama Administration Releases New Nuclear Warhead Numbers

By Hans M. Kristensen

In a speech to the Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in New York earlier today, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry disclosed new information about the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.

Updated Stockpile Numbers

First, Kerry updated the DOD nuclear stockpile history by declaring that the stockpile as of September 2014 included 4,717 nuclear warheads. That is a reduction of 87 warheads since September 2013, when the DOD stockpile included 4,804 warheads, or a reduction of about 500 warheads retired since President Obama took office in January 2009.

The September 2014 number of 4,717 warheads is 43 warheads off the estimate we made in our latest FAS Nuclear Notebook in March this year.

Disclosure of Dismantlement Queue

Second, Kerry also announced a new number we have never seen in public before: the official number of retired nuclear warheads in line for dismantlement. As of September 2014, the United States had approximately 2,500 additional warheads that have been retired (but are still relatively intact) and awaiting dismantlement.

The number of “approximately 2,500” retired warheads awaiting dismantlement is close to the 2,340 warheads we estimated in the FAS Nuclear Notebook in March 2015.

Increasing Warhead Dismantlements

Kerry also announced that the administration “will seek to accelerate the dismantlement of retired nuclear warheads by 20 percent.”

“Over the last 20 years alone, we have dismantled 10,251 warheads,” Kerry announced.

This updates the count of 9,952 dismantled warheads from the 2014 disclosure, which means that the administration between September 2013 and September 2014 dismantled 299 retired warheads.

Under current plans, of the “approximately 2,500” warheads in the dismantlement queue, the ones that were retired through (September) 2009 will be dismantled by 2022. Additional warheads retired during the past five years will take longer.

How the administration will accelerate dismantlement remains to be seen. The FY2016 budget request for NNSA pretty much flatlines funding for weapons dismantlement and disposition through 2020. In the same period, the administration plans to complete production of the W76-1 warhead, begin production of the B61-12, and carry out refurbishments of four other warheads. If the administration wanted to dismantle all “approximately 2,500″ retired warheads by 2022 (including those warheads retired after 2009), it would have to dismantle about 312 warheads per year – a rate of only 13 more than it dismantled in 2014. So this can probably be done with existing capacity.

Implications

Secretary Kerry’s speech is an important diplomatic gesture that will help the United States make its case at the NPT review conference that it is living up to its obligations under the treaty. Some will agree, others will not. The nuclear-weapon states are in a tough spot at the NPT because there are currently no negotiations underway for additional reductions; because the New START Treaty, although beneficial, is modest; and because the nuclear-weapon states are reaffirming the importance of nuclear weapons and modernizing their nuclear arsenals as if they plan to keep nuclear weapons indefinitely (see here for worldwide status of nuclear arsenals).

And the disclosure is a surprise. As recently as a few weeks ago, White House officials said privately that the United States would not be releasing updated nuclear warhead numbers at the NPT conference. Apparently, the leadership decided last minute to do so anyway. [Update: another White House official says the release was cleared late but that it had been the plan to release some numbers all along.]

The roughly 500 warheads cut from the stockpile by the Obama administration is modest and a disappointing performance by a president that has spoken so much about reducing the numbers and role of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the political reality has been an arms control policy squeezed between a dismissive Russian president and an arms control-hostile U.S. Congress.

In addition to updating the stockpile history, the most important part of the initiative is the disclosure of the number of weapons awaiting dismantlement. This is an important new transparency initiative by the administration that was not included in the 2010 or 2014 stockpile transparency initiatives. Disclosing dismantlement numbers helps dispel rumors that the United States is hiding a secret stash of nuclear warheads and enables the United States to demonstrate actual dismantlement progress.

And, besides, why would the administration not want to disclose to the NPT conference how many warheads it is actually working on dismantling? This can only help the United States at the NPT review conference.

There will be a few opponents of the transparency initiative. Since they can’t really say this harms U.S. national security, their primary argument will be that other nuclear-armed states have so far not response in kind.

Russia and China have not made public disclosures of their nuclear warhead inventories. Britain and France has said a little on a few occasions about their total inventories and (in the case of Britain) how many warheads are operationally available or deployed, but not disclosed the histories of stockpiles or dismantlement. And the other nuclear-armed states that are outside the NPT (India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan) have not said anything at all.

But this is a work in progress. It will take a long time to persuade other nuclear-armed states to become more transparent with basic information about nuclear arsenals. But seeing that it can be done without damaging national security and at the same time helping the NPT process is important to cut through old-fashioned excessive nuclear secrecy and increase nuclear transparency. Hat tip to the Obama administration.

This publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

Is China Planning To Build More Missile Submarines?

By Hans M. Kristensen

Is China increasing production of nuclear ballistic missile submarines?

Over the past few months, several US defense and intelligence officials have stated for the record that China is planning to build significantly more nuclear-powered missile submarines than previously assumed.

This would potentially put a bigger portion of China’s nuclear arsenal out to sea, a risky proposition, and further deepen China’s unfortunate status as the only nuclear-armed state party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation that is increasing it nuclear arsenal. Continue reading

New Nuclear Notebook: Russian Nuclear Forces 2015

By Hans M. Kristensen

Russian nuclear weapons have received a lot of attention lately. Russian officials casually throw around direct or thinly veiled nuclear threats (here, here and here). And U.S. defense hawks rail (here and here) about a Russian nuclear buildup.

In reality, rather than building up, Russia is building down but appears to be working to level off the force within the next decade to prevent further unilateral reduction of its strategic nuclear force in the future. For details, see the latest FAS Nuclear Notebook on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists web site.

This trend makes it more important for the United States and Russia to reach additional nuclear arms control agreements to reduce strategic nuclear forces. Hard to imagine in the current climate, but remember: even at the height of the Cold War the two sides reached important arms limitation agreements because it was seen then (as it is now) to be in their national security interest.  Continue reading

New START Treaty Count: Russia Dips Below US Again

By Hans M. Kristensen

Russian deployed strategic warheads counted by the New START Treaty once again slipped below the U.S. force level, according to the latest fact sheet released by the State Department.

The so-called aggregate numbers show that Russia as of March 1, 2015 deployed 1,582 warheads on 515 strategic launchers.

The U.S. count was 1,597 warheads on 785 launchers.

Back in September 2014, the Russian warhead count for the first time in the treaty’s history moved above the U.S. warhead count. The event caused U.S. defense hawks to say it showed Russia was increasing it nuclear arsenal and blamed the Obama administration. Russian news media gloated Russia had achieved “parity” with the United States for the first time.

Of course, none of that was true. The ups and downs in the aggregate data counts are fluctuations caused by launchers moving in an out of overhaul and new types being deployed while old types are being retired. The fact is that both Russia and the United States are slowly – very slowly – reducing their deployed forces to meet the treaty limits by February 2018.  Continue reading

H-Bomb History Published Over Government Objections

Physicist Kenneth W. Ford, who participated in the design of the hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s, has published a memoir of his experiences despite the objections of Energy Department reviewers who requested substantial redactions in the text.

“Building the H Bomb: A Personal History” was released this month in softcopy by World Scientific Publishing Company. Hardcopy editions are to appear in May.

The dispute between the author and the government over the book’s publication was first reported by the New York Times in “Hydrogen Bomb Physicist’s Book Runs Afoul of Energy Department” by William J. Broad, March 23. The Times story immediately turned the book into something of a bestseller, and it ranks number one on Amazon.com in categories of Physics, Nuclear Physics, and Military Technology.

Significantly, Department of Energy reviewers did not attempt to compel the author to amend his text, nor did they seek to interfere with the book’s publication. So their response here is altogether different than in the 1979 Progressive case, when the government sought and received an injunction to block release of Howard Morland’s article “The H Bomb Secret.” Rather, they asked Dr. Ford to make extensive changes in his manuscript. Depending on one’s point of view, the requested changes may have been frivolous, unnecessary, or prudent. But there is no reason to suppose they were presented in bad faith. The Department had nothing to gain from its recommended changes.

For his part, Dr. Ford was not on a crusade to expose nuclear secrets. On the contrary, “I have bent every effort to avoid revealing any information that is still secret,” he wrote in prefatory remarks. As one of the original participants in the H-Bomb program, he has exceptional standing to render a judgment on what is and is not sensitive. “In my considered opinion, this book contains nothing whose dissemination could possibly harm the United States or help some other country seeking to design and build an H bomb.”

Still, while Dr. Ford’s scientific judgment is entitled to great weight, the question of what constitutes Restricted Data under the Atomic Energy Act is not a scientific issue. It is a legal matter which is delegated by statute to the Department of Energy. This means that DOE retains some legal authority over the information in the book which it has not yet used. One may still hope that the Department, in its wisdom, will decline to exercise that authority in this case.

“Building the H Bomb” is a rather charming and quite readable account of a young man finding his way in the midst of momentous scientific and political upheaval. It is not a history of the H-Bomb. For that, one still needs to turn to Richard Rhodes’ “Dark Sun” and other works. Dr. Ford does provide an introduction to the basic physics of nuclear weapons. But for those who don’t already know the names of John Wheeler (Ford’s mentor), Enrico Fermi, or Hans Bethe, and what made them great scientists and men of stature, this book will not enlighten them very much.

What the book does offer is an eyewitness account of several crucial episodes in the development of the hydrogen bomb. So, for example, Ford considers the contested origins of the Teller-Ulam idea that was the key conceptual breakthrough in the Bomb’s history. He cannot decisively resolve the disputed facts of the matter, but he knew Teller and he knew Ulam, as well as Richard Garwin, John Toll, Marshall Rosenbluth, David Bohm and many others, and he provides fresh perspectives on them and their activities. Any historian of the nuclear age will relish the book.

The National Security Archive has posted an informative commentary by Dr. Ford, along with several important declassified documents that were used by the author in preparing the book.

The INF Crisis: Bad Press and Nuclear Saber Rattling

By Hans M. Kristensen

Russian online news paper Vzglaid is carrying a story that wrongly claims that I have said a Russian flight-test of an INF missile would not be a violation of the INF Treaty as long as the missile is not in production or put into service.

That is of course wrong. I have not made such a statement, not least because it would be wrong. On the contrary, a test-launch of an INF missile would indeed be a violation of the INF Treaty, regardless of whether the missile is in production or deployed.

Meanwhile, US defense secretary Ashton Carter appears to confirm that the ground-launched cruise missile Russia allegedly test-launched in violation of the INF Treaty is a nuclear missile and threatens further escalation if it is deployed. Continue reading

The Nuclear Weapons “Procurement Holiday”

harencakBy Hans M. Kristensen

It has become popular among military and congressional leaders to argue that the United States has had a “procurement holiday” in nuclear force planning for the past two decades.

“Over the past 20-25 years, we took a procurement holiday” in modernizing U.S. nuclear forces, Major General Garrett Harencak, the Air Force’s assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said in a speech yesterday.

Harencak’s claim strongly resembles the statement made by then-commander of US Air Force Global Strike Command, Lt. General Jim Kowalski, that the United States had “taken about a 20 year procurement holiday since the Soviet Union dissolved.”

Kowalski, who is now deputy commander at US Strategic Command, made a similar claim in May 2012: “Our nation has enjoyed an extended procurement holiday as we’ve deferred vigorous modernization of our nuclear deterrent forces for almost 20 years.”

One can always want more, but the “procurement holiday” claim glosses over the busy nuclear modernization and maintenance efforts of the past two decades. Continue reading