The safety and security of nuclear warheads is no laughing matter, even though some ways of trying to improve them—like that shown in this video from Sandia Lab—might cause a chuckle or two. It shows a white “goo” developed by scientists at Sandia that could encase a warhead in an emergency to make it harder for someone to run off with a warhead.
But in a lot of ways measures like this make more sense than some of the steps some in the weapons labs are suggesting.
Warhead “surety,” as defined by the DOD, includes both safety measures to ensure a nuclear weapon does not go off by accident, and security measures to make unauthorized use difficult or, some would hope, impossible. Both of these are important. Who wants a dropped bomb to lead to a mushroom cloud, or terrorists to obtain and blow up a U.S. nuclear weapon?
The video is one method of increasing security, by increasing the amount of time it would take for any nefarious evil-doers to wander off with a nuclear warhead should they stumble upon one or, more likely, seek to steal one. If it takes a lot longer to walk off with the warhead than anticipated, it gives the good guys more time to ride in and save the day.
Warheads and bombs are most vulnerable while they are being transported, in the vehicles that drive them around. Here’s a picture, courtesy of our friend Tom Clements at Friends of the Earth, of the tractor-trailer used by the Department of Energy to deliver to the military the weapons it works on:
There are certainly some special features on the trucks, including “various deterrents to prevent unauthorized removal of cargo,” and what exactly those are is appropriately classified. Let’s just say that goo is probably one of them.
But that’s DOE. According to folks I’ve talked to, it is not at all clear that DOD has incorporated the same technologies when it moves around warheads once it has received them from DOE. And, of course, we all recall the Barksdale incident, where six live nuclear warheads flew across the country and were left unguarded on the tarmac for many, many hours.
For that scenario, couldn’t we at least have the radio frequency ID tags that Walmart puts on men’s jeans these days, that allow you to keep track of every single item? How hard can it be?
These issues are particularly compelling right now because the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is undertaking a series of Life Extension Programs (LEPs) for weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and one of the objectives always highlighted is to increase the safety and security of existing warheads.
Now, the primary goal of these LEPs is to ensure that, without conducting nuclear explosive tests, the stockpile remains—as it is today—in good working order. Independent review has confirmed that, as long as that remains the goal, the warheads can be maintained for decades to come. The refurbishment process is well-understood and relatively straight-forward, although there have been some exceptions—now resolved—around issues like Fogbank.
However, some have suggested adding new-fangled technological gizmos to the warheads themselves in an effort to improve safety and security. Some of these are so-called “intrinsic” features that require changes to the nuclear explosive package, sometimes known as the physics package of the warhead. We’re talking about the plutonium-based primary and its high explosives, and the uranium-based secondary.
And that is where things quickly get very complicated. In an era where the goal is not to conduct full-scale nuclear testing, you don’t mess with these parts unless you absolutely have to, or you risk making changes that will cause the weapon to not work as designed. In other words, by tampering with the physics package, you risk introducing concerns about the reliability of the warhead.
So, the question is, if all the folks responsible for protecting our nuclear warheads have NOT already installed sticky goo or something like it, and we don’t have systems to reliably track warheads, why are they considering taking the potentially risky step of monkeying around with the warheads?
To those in Congress and the administration who have the clearances, please determine if there are less intrusive alternatives to intrinsic warhead surety features.
I would note Congress did require NNSA to develop a methodology and standards to assess safety and security improvements for warheads. In that process, the NNSA should work with the Pentagon to consider every aspect of the warhead’s life, from maintenance to transport to storage to deployment and use. Rather than taking a narrow view that only seeks to make the warhead itself invulnerable, NNSA and DOD should pursue a comprehensive approach that addresses vulnerabilities where they are most likely to occur.