The Intricacies of Sustaining America’s Aging Nuclear Arsenal

by Chloe Baker
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Maintaining America's Aging Nuclear Arsenal

In a highly-secured facility in Kansas City, specialized U.S. government technicians are tasked with the rigorous refurbishment of America’s nuclear warheads. Each warhead comprises thousands of individual components—springs, gears, and copper contacts—that must function flawlessly to trigger a nuclear detonation.

Simultaneously, 800 miles away in New Mexico, other experts are assigned a task of equal gravity. Clad in multiple layers of gloves and equipped with radiation monitors and safety goggles, these professionals manually shape new plutonium cores for warheads.

Furthermore, at various U.S. military bases nationwide, some servicemembers—some as young as 17—are responsible for maintaining warheads that are half a century old while waiting for modern replacements. A minor imperfection, such as a minute scratch on a warhead’s surface, could result in a catastrophic trajectory deviation.

The Big Big News was given unique access to crucial aspects of this highly confidential nuclear supply chain, witnessing firsthand the daunting challenge of sustaining an antiquated nuclear arsenal. This labor-intensive operation is set to ramp up, with the U.S. planning to invest over $750 billion over the coming decade to comprehensively overhaul its nuclear defenses. This constitutes the most extensive nuclear refurbishment endeavor since the Manhattan Project.

The period of relative peace since the last wartime use of a nuclear weapon is nearing eight decades. However, defense leaders caution that global conditions are increasingly precarious, especially with China’s and Russia’s nuclear build-ups and Russia’s recurrent threats involving Ukraine. Consequently, the U.S. finds it imperative to modernize its aging arsenal to ensure its functionality.

Marvin Adams, the Director of Weapons Programs for the Department of Energy, commented, “Our objective is to maintain our way of life without resorting to major conflicts. The foundation of that objective is a reliable nuclear deterrent.”

By international treaties, the U.S. is obligated to maintain 1,550 operational nuclear warheads, all of which are slated for modernization. In addition to this, the professionals tasked with maintaining the current arsenal must also prepare for the integration of the newer systems.

Various watchdog organizations and critics have questioned the feasibility of these ambitious plans, both in terms of deadlines and costs. Daryl Kimball, the Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, warned that such a comprehensive upgrade could also incite rival nations to enhance and extend their own arsenals.

The Origin Point

Every nuclear warhead relies on a hollow, spherical plutonium core manufactured at the Department of Energy’s laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico—the birthplace of the atomic bomb. While the radioactive elements within these cores have a half-life spanning thousands of years, concerns linger about the effects of decay on the core’s functionality. The U.S. has not performed any significant tests since the 1990s to update its data on core degradation, further fueling these apprehensions.

The present status has thus compelled the department to recommence pit production. The highly secure PF-4 facility at Los Alamos serves as the hub for this operation, with workers employing specialized equipment to handle the toxic material safely.

The Fusion of Tradition and Technology

At the Energy Department’s Kansas City National Security Campus, a separate team focuses on the assembly and testing of the outer layers of the warheads. This work demands meticulous precision. Employees there are rigorously assessed on their ability to manage intricate tasks, including disassembling and reassembling a mechanical wristwatch.

The challenge extends beyond merely maintaining existing warheads. With various modernization projects underway, including new stealth bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and a new class of submarines, the facility is under constant pressure to scale its workforce and capabilities.

The Veteran and the Novice

The U.S. military faces its own set of challenges, particularly concerning manpower. The process of maintaining the current arsenal involves tools and technologies that are equally dated. Moreover, the military struggles to retain experienced technicians, given the more lucrative opportunities in the private sector.

Despite the challenges, committed servicemembers like Chief Master Sgt. Andrew Zahm remain in service, driven by the opportunity to witness the integration of the country’s first new nuclear weapons in decades.

This report is based on first-hand observations from Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico; the Kansas City National Security Campus, Missouri; Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, and F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming.

The Big Big News extends its gratitude to the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Outrider Foundation for their support in covering nuclear security issues. All content remains the sole responsibility of The Big Big News. Washington Investigations Editor for The Big Big News is Del Wilber.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Maintaining America’s Aging Nuclear Arsenal

What is the main focus of the article?

The article primarily delves into the complex and exacting process involved in maintaining and refurbishing the United States’ aging nuclear weapons arsenal. It offers insights into the roles of technicians, scientists, and military personnel in this endeavor and touches upon the significant financial and logistical challenges that lie ahead.

How much is the U.S. government planning to spend on nuclear modernization over the next 10 years?

The U.S. government plans to allocate more than $750 billion over the next decade for a sweeping modernization effort aimed at replacing almost every component of its nuclear defenses.

Where are the plutonium cores for the warheads manufactured?

The plutonium cores for the nuclear warheads are manufactured at the Energy Department’s lab in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

What challenges are mentioned regarding the modernization efforts?

The challenges highlighted include meeting ambitious project deadlines and increasing costs. The article also mentions the criticism from non-proliferation advocates and experts who argue that the current, albeit aging, arsenal is sufficient to meet U.S. needs.

What is the role of young troops in maintaining the nuclear arsenal?

Young troops, some as young as 17, are responsible for maintaining 50-year-old warheads until replacements are ready. Their tasks are critical; even a minor scratch on a warhead could alter its course.

What are the concerns about plutonium aging?

Although the key radioactive atom in the plutonium pit has a half-life of 24,000 years, which theoretically suggests that the weapons should be viable for a long time, there are concerns that the aging process of plutonium isn’t entirely understood. This could affect how a pit explodes.

How many active nuclear warheads does the U.S. maintain by treaty?

By treaty, the United States maintains 1,550 active nuclear warheads.

Who are the critics of this modernization effort and what do they caution?

Critics of the modernization effort, like Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, caution that the U.S. may face extreme difficulty meeting its project deadlines and that costs will escalate. They also warn that this could prompt Russia and China to improve and expand their own arsenals.

What are the manpower challenges faced by the military and private sectors involved?

While the private-sector managed plants have gone on hiring sprees to meet rising workload, the military has struggled to fill jobs and retain experienced technicians. The article suggests that private-sector opportunities often prove more lucrative for these skilled individuals.

Who provided the access and support for the nuclear security coverage in the article?

The Big Big News received support for nuclear security coverage from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Outrider Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

More about Maintaining America’s Aging Nuclear Arsenal

  • U.S. Nuclear Modernization Efforts: An Overview
  • Los Alamos National Laboratory: Plutonium Manufacturing
  • United States Nuclear Forces: Budget Overview
  • Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START)
  • Critics on U.S. Nuclear Arsenal Modernization
  • Manpower in the U.S. Military: Recruitment and Retention Challenges
  • Carnegie Corporation of New York: Nuclear Security Funding
  • Outrider Foundation: Nuclear Risk Reduction Initiatives
  • Arms Control Association: U.S. Nuclear Modernization Debate
  • Plutonium Aging: Scientific Concerns and Implications

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