The Surprising Afterlife of Unwanted Atom Bombs

What happens when old atomic bombs are retired? Last month, the Biden administration announced its intention to withdraw the nation’s most powerful weapon from the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The bomb is called the B83. It is a hydrogen bomb that debuted in 1983 — a time when President Reagan was denouncing Russia as “an evil empire.” The government made 660 of the deadly weapons, which were to be delivered by fast bombers. The B83 was 12 feet long, had fins and packed an explosive force roughly 80 times greater than that of the Hiroshima bomb. Its job was to obliterate hardened military sites and command bunkers, including Moscow’s.

What now for the B83? How many still exist is a federal secret, but not the weapon’s likely fate, which may surprise anyone who assumes that getting rid of a nuclear weapon means that it vanishes from the face of the earth.

Typically, nuclear arms retired from the U.S. arsenal are not melted down, pulverized, crushed, buried or otherwise destroyed. Instead, they are painstakingly disassembled, and their parts, including their deadly plutonium cores, are kept in a maze of bunkers and warehouses across the United States. Any individual facility within this gargantuan complex can act as a kind of used-parts superstore from which new weapons can — and do — emerge.

“It’s like a giant Safeway,” said Hans M. Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, a private research group in Washington. “You go in with a bar code and get what you need.”

One weapon that nuclear planners want to make from recycled parts and designs is the W93 — billed as the first new warhead for the nation’s nuclear arsenal since the Cold War. The Biden administration announced the weapon’s birth in March and estimated it would cost up to $15.5 billion. The finished warhead would sit atop submarine missiles starting in or around 2034. Despite its description as new, the official government plan states that the weapon will be “anchored on previously tested nuclear components,” not new explosive parts.

“It’s bizarre how these things cycle around,” Mr. Kristensen said. “It’s nuclear whack-a-mole. You hit one down, and another pops up.”

The recycling has no direct bearing on the overall size of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, as the reused explosive parts are often employed for making replacement weapons, not new ones. That’s the case with the W93s, which are to replace or supplement old submarine warheads.

Even so, such recycling makes advocates for greater arms control livid. They’ve long argued that other nations view the storage of explosive weapon parts as a sign that the United States wants the option to make swarms of new warheads. That perception, they add, can fuel new arms races and nuclear proliferation.

“Getting rid of them would be a good thing,” said Frank N. von Hippel, a nuclear physicist who advised the Clinton White House and now teaches at Princeton University. “It would signal that we have no expectation of rebuilding our arsenal.”

But hawks see the stored parts as crucial for the hedging of nuclear bets. Of late, they cite China’s growing nuclear arsenal as a developing threat that may require atomic rearmament.

“It’s important to keep these parts around,” said Franklin C. Miller, a nuclear expert who held federal posts for three decades before leaving government service in 2005. “If we had the manufacturing complex we once did, we wouldn’t have to rely on the old parts.” He added that other nuclear powers can and do make new atomic parts.

Beyond the weapon debate, critics of the atomic recycling warn that the nuclear storage complex is a disaster waiting to happen. It has a long history of accidents, safety lapses and security failures that could lead to a nuclear catastrophe.

“It’s dangerous,” said Robert Alvarez, a nuclear expert who, from 1993 to 1999 during the Clinton administration was a policy adviser to the Department of Energy, which runs the nation’s atomic infrastructure. “And it’s getting more dangerous, as the quantities in storage have increased.”

The plutonium cores of retired hydrogen bombs are of particular concern, Mr. Alvarez and others say. Roughly the size of a grapefruit, these cores are usually referred to as pits. The United States now has at least 20,000 pits in storage. They’re kept at a sprawling plant in the Texas panhandle known as Pantex. Plutonium is deadly to humans in tiny amounts, and that greatly complicates its safekeeping.

If recycled, pits from the B83 bombs would enter plutonium bunkers at Pantex that are already overcrowded and overtaxed. Mr. Alvarez said that torrential rains in 2010 and 2017 flooded a major plutonium storage area at the Pantex site. Repairs, he added, cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations all made plans — with costs in the billions of dollars — to get rid of excess plutonium stocks, which grew rapidly after the Cold War because of arms disassembly. But no strategy has so far succeeded.

Plans to recycle parts of the B83 may come to naught if Republicans on Capitol Hill have their way. Early this year, they criticized the Biden administration’s emerging plan to retire the powerful bomb, which they said was needed for targeting hard and deep targets.

But Mr. Kristensen of the science federation said that the Republicans were unlikely to succeed in saving the B83 even after retaking the House, which gives them new clout in determining military budgets and priorities. He said that the weapon, four decades after entering the U.S. arsenal, was more likely to start its afterlife in the storage maze.

“They’ve tried to stuff it down the throat of the administration, but the military hasn’t expressed any need for it,” he said of Republican attempts to block the B83’s withdrawal. “I think it will probably be retired. I think this one’s dead.”

The Pentagon has given the old weapon no public support. Officials say that an overhaul meant to extend the weapon’s life would be costly and in any case would put bombers in jeopardy because they’d have to fly so close to targets.

Newer arms use satellite guidance, so bombers can drop their weapons from afar. For instance, the B61 model 12 has a computer brain and four maneuverable fins that let it zero in on deeply buried targets. To be deployed in Europe late this year, it is a designated replacement for the B83. And yes, its explosive parts come from the atomic recycling bin.

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