Nuclear Weapons

Thought for the day, courtesy of Fogbank

08.05.09 | 4 min read | Text by Alicia Godsberg

by Alicia Godsberg

Yesterday’s Washington Post had another article[1] in the ongoing saga of W76 warhead refurbishment Life Extension Program (LEP) and Fogbank – a material that, according to open sources, is an intermediary material between the primary and secondary of a nuclear weapon that is “crucial” to the weapon reaching its designed yield.[2]  The problem for the W76 LEP: the original Fogbank manufacturing facility was closed years ago, at least partly because the material is extremely hazardous.  In addition, due to a lack of record keeping from the original manufacturing process (and the retirement of many knowledgeable scientists involved in that process), the labs found themselves not knowing how to re-manufacture Fogbank or a suitable replacement material for the W76 in a timely manner. The labs tried a three-prong approach to fixing this problem: building a new Fogbank production facility; manufacturing limited quantities at an interim location; and producing a suitable alternative made from less hazardous materials that would not need to undergo nuclear testing.[3]  What we have now is a new $50 million dollar facility at Y-12 to produce Fogbank in either some new form or its older, more hazardous form.[4] 

 That is the brief background – here is the thought of the day, courtesy of many conversations with Ivan Oelrich: there is no longer any justification for retaining complex, extremely high-yield two-stage thermonuclear nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War world.  Our nuclear deterrent would be sufficient with more simple-to-make HEU weapons, even gun-type weapons, the design of which was so scientifically fool-proof that it didn’t need testing before it was dropped on Hiroshima 64 years ago almost to the day.  

This move would be a huge step in the direction of fulfilling our nuclear disarmament obligation under Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and would instantly reinstate the position of the United States as the leader of global nonproliferation efforts.  Relying solely on HEU explosion nuclear weapons would continue to keep the United States and its allies safe and secure while creating the momentum all current policies seem to be lacking in moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons.

Some detractors will say that a 13kiloton nuclear explosion, such as the one that leveled Hiroshima, is not powerful enough to maintain the balance of fear that is our nuclear deterrent policy (the W76, by contrast, is a 100kiloton weapon).  But just barely beneath the surface of that assertion is the question, for what purpose is a 13kiloton nuclear weapon not powerful enough?  Against deeply hidden targets?  For any of these targets the primary obstacle is knowing that they exist and where they hidden.  And, as Ivan Oelrich has pointed out elsewhere, why are these targets buried far enough under ground to evade conventional weapons but not far enough to be safe from nuclear attack?   Even a thermonuclear weapon might only achieve a “functional kill” against such targets (i.e. disabling exits, communication, etc.), a result that a 13kiloton explosion would also surely achieve.   Against hard targets or large target areas such as airports?  Advances in precision-guided electronic components on missiles make this argument obsolete today, but even so there is supposedly plenty of redundancy in targeting policy to make this argument even less valid.

Tremendous amounts of financial, intellectual, and political capital could be saved from a move away from two-stage thermonuclear weapons to more simply designed HEU gun-type assembly weapons.  Funds could be redirected to conventionally arm our soldiers currently fighting two wars, scientists could be at work solving the problems of storing and transporting alternative energy sources and other national security puzzles, and politically we would be able to speak with moral authority to implement policies for preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials while working toward a gradual, balanced global nuclear disarmament.  Another plus is that there would be no need for military stocks of plutonium, enabling these stocks to be downblended into fuel for civilian power nuclear reactors for decades.  Less fissile material = less fissile material to be stolen or sold to terrorists or states that would use them for nefarious purposes.  Other hazardous materials that are expensive to manufacture and used to boost the yields of two-stage thermonuclear weapons could be eliminated too, such as tritium and americium, the latter of which is prime dirty-bomb material.

Tomorrow will be 64 years since Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima, killing over 70,000 people in an instant and razing a city into ashes.  If you are still not convinced the even more powerful thermonuclear weapons are unnecessary in a post-Cold War world, take the opportunity to talk to any of the surviving Hibukasha at upcoming Hiroshima events this week and ask them if the bomb they witnessed was too small to be effective as a nuclear deterrent while we continue to work for total nuclear disarmament.










[4] Note: the WP article puts the facility at $23 million and states that it is manufacturing a “new Fogbank” that will hopefully be certified “by the end of this year.”  However, the knox news article puts that facility at $50 million and offers this quote from Y-12 general manager Dennis Ruddy on the composition of Fogbank: “The material is classified.  Its composition is classified.  Its use in the weapon is classified, and the process itself is classified.”