Scrapping the Safe Nuke?

The compact W84 warhead (left) was designed to be delivered by the ground-launched cruise missile. Some 380 W84s are awaiting dismantlement – or reuse.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) recently announced that disassembly of the W84 warhead has begun at the Pantex Plant in Texas.

This marks the final phase for a group of 400 warheads that were at the center of the Cold War in Europe as part of NATO’s Double Track Decision in 1979 to deploy intermediate-range weapons in response to Soviet deployments. The W84 armed the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) that was eliminated by the 1987 INF Treaty.

Redundant before production was completed in 1988, the W84 spent the rest of its life on shelves in military warehouses in the United States. The NNSA press release states that the W84 “remains in the inactive stockpile,” but the weapon was formally retired in 2006-2007, and neither the DOE budget request for FY2011 nor the latest Stockpile Stewardship Management Plan (SSMP) lists the W84 as part of the DOD stockpile. NNSA told me they would correct the press release.

The W84 was and probably is the safest of all the warhead types produced by the United States. It is equipped with more safety and security (surety) features than any other warhead: Insensitive High Explosives; Fire Resistant Pit; Enhanced Nuclear Detonation Safety (ENDS/EEI) with detonator stronglinks; Command Disable; and the most advanced Permissive Action Link (PAL G).

Relative Surety of U.S. Nuclear Warheads
The W84 is the equipped with more safety and security features (surety combined) than any other warhead in the U.S. stockpile. The W84 was retired in 2006-2007.

It may seem as an irony that the safest warhead is being scrapped at a time when the administration is asking Congress to authorize billions of dollars to increase the safety and security of the remaining warheads in the stockpile. But there is a twist.

A few years ago, dismantlement at Pantex would have meant the end for the W84. But the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review decided that the “full range of LEP approaches will be considered: refurbishment of existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components from different warheads, and replacement of nuclear components.”

As a result, the W84 – and all other retired warheads currently in line for dismantlement – “will be assessed for reuse applications as appropriate,” NNSA told me.

Therefore, they said, “it would be premature to assume that components from the W84 operations will be for immediate disposal (scrapping).”

So who knows, one day the W84 – or components of it – might be deployed once again as part of a replacement warhead.

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

3 thoughts on “Scrapping the Safe Nuke?

  1. Time to produce a new generation of advanced nuclear weapon to insure the safety and surety of the stockpile. It has been 20 years since the US produced a nuclear weapon and in these dangerous times that is just unacceptable.

    Reply: But why is it necessary? What’s wrong with the ones we have and plan to extend for another 30 years? HK

  2. Is it possible to produce a new model of nuclear warhead using existing physics packages (which are based on extensively tested and certified designs) but modern supporting components (advanced surety components, more accurate guidance and fusing systems, etc.)? I agree that our current arsenal is adequate for current and future missions, especially since open-source information suggests that the accuracy and reliability of our warheads provides a substantial advantage over Russia or China. I’m also sympathetic to arguments for increasing the safety and security of our weapons (which is being addressed by LEP), and for standardizing components to reduce the costs and logistical requirements of maintaining the systems. While it may not be necessary to maintain the US advantage, it seems to me that such an option would be more politically palatable because it does not require nuclear-yield testing but does address concerns that LEP options will be inadequate.

    Reply: Yes it is possible, but it depends on how significant or intrusive the modifications are. There’s a whole family of B61 bombs, based on the same basic design, but with different characteristics and capabilities: B61-3, B61-4, B61-7, B61-10, B61-11. Many people are “sympathetic to arguments for increasing the safety and security of our weapons,” but the question few ask is how much surety (safety and surety combined) is necessary and for what specific reasons. The current LEP plans pursue increased surety “independent of threat scenarios,” which I think is unnecessary, expensive, and potentially risky. Surety features should not be added to warheads, I believe, unless there’s a specific threat that requires it. Open-ended pursuit of increased surety is very expensive, money that could and should be used for better things. And some of the surety features they are pursuing under the planned LEPs are so intrusive that they could affect weapons performance and change the warhead beyond the tested design, thus potentially increasing the need for nuclear testing. HK

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