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The Intricacies of Sustaining America’s Nuclear Capabilities

by Joshua Brown
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U.S. Nuclear Arsenal Maintenance

The United States is projected to allocate over $750 billion in the forthcoming ten years for the comprehensive modernization of its deteriorating nuclear arsenal. Government officials argue that immediate action is indispensable, given that certain systems and components have been in operation for more than half a century.

The responsibility of maintaining the existing nuclear weaponry and associated apparatus currently falls on the shoulders of younger members of the military and federal technical staff dispersed across the country. These roles are demanding and frequently necessitate precise manual labor, primarily because numerous maintenance procedures must be executed by hand.

Big Big News was given an exceptional opportunity to explore nuclear missile installations and weapons manufacturing locations, allowing a firsthand look at how these experts sustain the arsenal while initiating the largest nuclear refurbishment since the era of the Cold War.

Ongoing Queries Surrounding Component Reliability

Due to the cessation of explosive nuclear testing in the United States, there remains some uncertainty among scientists regarding how the aging of plutonium cores in warheads might influence their detonation capabilities. Similarly, questions have arisen about the long-term reliability of other components, such as plastics, metals, and internal wiring.

To ensure safety, workers at various national nuclear laboratories and manufacturing facilities engage in extensive testing regimes. For instance, at the Energy Department’s Kansas City National Security Campus, where warheads undergo maintenance and production, components are subjected to a barrage of rigorous tests that simulate real-world conditions, ranging from extreme temperature fluctuations to intense vibrations.

Parallel evaluations occur at Los Alamos National Lab, where plutonium is tested under extreme conditions to verify its stability and functionality. The scrutinized components and radioactive materials are then carefully analyzed for any signs of wear or damage.

Navigating Legacy Designs and Manufacturing Challenges

The prohibition on explosive tests, enacted during the George H.W. Bush administration and upheld by international agreements, has constrained scientists to work with warhead designs that are several decades old. This poses a challenge, as making even a minor alteration introduces an element of uncertainty.

Compounding these challenges is the fact that many original manufacturers and contractors are now defunct. This has necessitated reverse engineering of certain components, leveraging advances in computer-aided design and 3D printing technologies to recreate materials and parts no longer in production.

A Youthful Workforce Shouldering Heavy Responsibilities

It is not uncommon to encounter nuclear warheads, some over 50 years old, being managed by individuals barely out of their teen years. For example, at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, Senior Airman Jacob Deas recently assumed responsibility for a nearly 3,000-pound Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile warhead.

There has been a notable shift in the age demographics of the civilian nuclear workforce, primarily attributed to a surge in retirements. This has led to an increase in the number of women in the field, evidenced by modifications in facilities and uniform allowances to accommodate a more diverse workforce.


Big Big News acknowledges support for its nuclear security reporting from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Outrider Foundation. The AP maintains full responsibility for the content of this article. Del Wilber serves as the Washington investigations editor for the AP.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about U.S. Nuclear Arsenal Maintenance

What is the projected budget for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next decade?

The United States is projected to allocate over $750 billion in the forthcoming ten years for the comprehensive modernization of its deteriorating nuclear arsenal.

Who is responsible for maintaining the existing U.S. nuclear weapons?

The responsibility of maintaining the existing nuclear weaponry and associated apparatus currently falls on the shoulders of younger members of the military and federal technical staff dispersed across the country.

What challenges do scientists face due to the cessation of explosive nuclear tests?

Due to the cessation of explosive nuclear testing in the United States, there remains some uncertainty among scientists regarding how the aging of plutonium cores in warheads might influence their detonation capabilities. Similarly, questions have arisen about the long-term reliability of other components, such as plastics, metals, and internal wiring.

What types of tests are conducted to ensure the safety of nuclear components?

To ensure safety, workers at various national nuclear laboratories and manufacturing facilities engage in extensive testing regimes. Components are subjected to a barrage of rigorous tests that simulate real-world conditions, ranging from extreme temperature fluctuations to intense vibrations.

How are outdated warhead designs and components being managed?

The prohibition on explosive tests has constrained scientists to work with warhead designs that are several decades old. Additionally, many original manufacturers and contractors are now defunct, necessitating reverse engineering of certain components. Advances in computer-aided design and 3D printing technologies are being leveraged to recreate materials and parts no longer in production.

What is the age demographic of the workforce responsible for U.S. nuclear weapons?

There has been a notable shift in the age demographics of the civilian nuclear workforce, primarily attributed to a surge in retirements. It is not uncommon to encounter nuclear warheads, some over 50 years old, being managed by individuals barely out of their teen years.

Has the changing workforce demographic affected the gender composition?

Yes, the change in age demographics has led to an increase in the number of women in the field. This is evidenced by modifications in facilities and uniform allowances to accommodate a more diverse workforce.

More about U.S. Nuclear Arsenal Maintenance

  • U.S. Nuclear Modernization Efforts
  • National Security Implications of Aging Nuclear Arsenal
  • Technological Advances in Nuclear Component Manufacturing
  • Demographic Changes in the Nuclear Workforce
  • Impact of International Treaties on U.S. Nuclear Policy

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