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  • The Bomb and the Nuclear Posture Review

    Posted on April 22nd, 2017 Helian No comments

    A Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is a legislatively mandated review, typically conducted every five to ten years.  It assesses such things as the role, safety and reliability of the weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, the status of facilities in the nuclear weapons complex, and nuclear weapons policy in areas such as nonproliferation and arms control.  The last one was conducted in 2010.  The Trump Administration directed that another one be conducted this year, and the review is already in its initial stages.  It should be finished by the end of the year.  There is reason for concern about what the final product might look like.

    Trump has made statements to the effect that the U.S. should “expand its nuclear capability,” and that, “We have nuclear arsenals that are in very terrible shape.  They don’t even know if they work.”  Such statements have typically been qualified by his aides.  It’s hard to tell whether they reflect serious policy commitments, or just vague impressions based on a few minutes of conversation with some Pentagon wonk.  In fact, there are deep differences of opinion about these matters within the nuclear establishment.  That’s why the eventual content of the NPR might be problematic.  There have always been people within the nuclear establishment, whether at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency within the Department of Energy responsible for maintaining the stockpile, or in the military, who are champing at the bit to resume nuclear testing.  Occasionally they will bluntly question the reliability of the weapons in our stockpile, even though by that very act they diminish the credibility of our nuclear deterrent.  If Trump’s comments are to be taken seriously, the next NPR may reflect the fact that they have gained the upper hand.  That would be unfortunate.

    Is it really true that the weapons in our arsenal are “in very terrible shape,” and we “don’t even know if they work?”  I doubt it.  In the first place, the law requires that both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense sign off on an annual assessment that certifies the safety and reliability of the stockpile.  They have never failed to submit that certification.  Beyond that, the weapons in our stockpile are the final product of more than 1000 nuclear tests.  They are both safe and robust.  Any credible challenge to their safety and reliability must cite some plausible reason why they might fail.  I know of no such reason.

    For the sake of argument, let’s consider what might go wrong.  Modern weapons typically consist of a primary and a secondary.  The primary consists of a hollow “pit” of highly enriched uranium or plutonium surrounded by high explosive.  Often it is filled with a “boost” gas consisting of a mixture of deuterium and tritium, two heavy isotopes of hydrogen.  When the weapon is used, the high explosive implodes the pit, causing it to form a dense mass that is highly supercritical.  At the same time, nuclear fusion takes place in the boost gas, producing highly energetic neutrons that enhance the yield of the primary.  At the right moment an “initiator” sends a burst of neutrons into the imploded pit, setting off a chain reaction that results in a nuclear explosion.  Some of the tremendous energy released in this explosion in the form of x-rays then implodes the secondary, causing it, too, to explode, adding to the yield of the weapon.

    What could go wrong?  Of course, explosives are volatile.  Those used to implode the primary might deteriorate over time.  However, these explosives are carefully monitored to detect any such deterioration.  Other than that, the tritium in the boost gas is radioactive, and has a half life of only a little over 12 years.  It will gradually decay into helium, reducing the effectiveness of boosting.  This, too, however is a well understood process, and one which is carefully monitored and compensated for by timely replacement of the tritium.  Corrosion of key parts might occur, but this too, is carefully checked, and the potential sources are well understood.  All these potential sources of uncertainty affect the primary.  However, much of the uncertainty about their effects can be eliminated experimentally.  Of course, the experiments can’t include actual nuclear explosions, but surrogate materials can be substituted for the uranium and plutonium in the pit with similar properties.  The implosion process can then be observed using powerful x-ray or proton beams.  Unfortunately, our experimental capabilities in this area are limited.  We cannot observe the implosion process all the way from the initial explosion to the point at which maximum density is achieved in three dimensions taking “snapshots” at optimally short intervals.  To do that, we would need what has been referred to as an Advanced Hydrodynamic Facility, or AHF.

    We currently have an unmatched suite of above ground experimental facilities for studying the effects of aging on the weapons in our stockpile, including the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Z Machine at Sandia National Laboratories, and the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility (DARHT) at Los Alamos.  These give us a very significant leg up on the international competition when it comes to maintaining our stockpile.  That is a major reason why it would be foolish for us to resume nuclear testing.  We would be throwing away this advantage.  Unfortunately, while we once seriously considered building an AHF, basically an extremely powerful accelerator, we never got around to doing so.  It was a serious mistake.  If we had such a facility, it would effectively pull the rug out from under the feet of those who want to resume testing.  It would render all arguments to the effect that “we don’t even know if they work” moot.  We could demonstrate with a very high level of confidence that they will indeed work.

    But that’s water under the bridge.  We must hope that cooler heads prevail, and the NPR doesn’t turn out to be a polemic challenging the credibility of the stockpile and advising a resumption of testing.  We’re likely to find out one way or the other before the end of the year.  Keep your fingers crossed.

  • Do We Really Need New Nukes?

    Posted on December 2nd, 2014 Helian No comments

    If an article that just appeared in the LA Times is any indication, the agitation for jump-starting the nuclear weapons program at the Department of Energy (DOE) and the three nuclear weapons laboratories (Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia National Laboratories) continues unabated. Entitled “New nuclear weapons needed, many experts say, pointing to aged arsenal,” it cites all the usual talking points of the weaponeers. For example,

    Warheads in the nation’s stockpile are an average of 27 years old, which raises serious concerns about their reliability, they say. Provocative nuclear threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin have added to the pressure to not only design new weapons but conduct underground tests for the first time since 1992.

    “It seems like common sense to me if you’re trying to keep an aging machine alive that’s well past its design life, then you’re treading on thin ice,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman-elect of the House Armed Services Committee. “Not to mention, we’re spending more and more to keep these things going.”

    Thornbury also offered support for renewed testing, saying, “You don’t know how a car performs unless you turn the key over. Why would we accept anything less from a weapon that provides the foundation for which all our national security is based on?”

    Such comments are entirely typical. They would make a lot of sense if the U.S. nuclear weapons program existed in a vacuum. However, it doesn’t. It exists in a world with several other major nuclear powers, and they all have the same problems. Under the circumstances, the fact that such problems exist and are shared by all the nuclear powers is less significant than the question of which nuclear power is best equipped to deal with them. The question of who will benefit by the building of new weapons and a resumption of nuclear testing depends on the answer to that question. If one country has a significant advantage over its rivals in dealing with a common problem as long as the status quo is maintained, then it would be very ill-advised to initiate a change to the status quo that would allow them to catch up.  At the moment, the United States is the country with an advantage. As noted in the article,

    The U.S. has by far the greatest archive of test data, having conducted 1,032 nuclear tests. Russia conducted 715 and China only 45.

    Beyond that, we have the ability to conduct tests with conventional explosives that mimic what goes on in the initial stages of a nuclear explosion, and superb diagnostics to extract a maximum of data from those tests. Perhaps more importantly, we have an unrivaled above ground experimental, or AGEX, capability. I refer to machines like Z at Sandia National Laboratories, or the NIF at Livermore, which are far more capable and powerful than similar facilities anywhere else in the world. Those who say they can’t access physical conditions relevant to those that occur in exploding nuclear weapons, or that they are useless for weapon effects or weapon physics experiments, either don’t know what they’re talking about or are attempting to deceive.

    As far as the NIF is concerned, it is quite true that it has so far failed to achieve its fusion ignition milestone, but that by no means rules out the possibility that it ever will. More importantly, the NIF will remain a highly useful AGEX facility whether it achieves ignition or not. Indeed, before it was built, many of the weapons designers showed little interest in ignition. It would merely “muddy the waters,” making it more difficult for the diagnostics to precisely record the results of an experiment. The NIF could access weapons-relevant conditions without it. In fact, in spite of its failure to achieve ignition to date, the NIF has been a spectacular success as far as achieving its specifications are concerned. It is more than an order of magnitude more powerful than any previously existing laser system, its 192 laser beams are highly accurate, and its diagnostic suite is superb.

    Another problem with the resumption of testing is that it will lead to the development of weapons that are much more likely to be used. Once the nuclear genie is out of the bottle, it will likely prove very difficult to put it back in. For example, again quoting the article,

    John S. Foster Jr., former director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and chief of Pentagon research during the Cold War, said the labs should design, develop and build prototype weapons that may be needed by the military in the future, including a very low-yield nuclear weapon that could be used with precision delivery systems, an electromagnetic pulse weapon that could destroy an enemy’s communications systems and a penetrating weapon to destroy deeply buried targets.

    The commonly heard narrative at DOE goes something like this: “We need to develop small, precise, penetrating nuclear weapons because they will be a much better deterrent than the existing ones. Potential enemies are unlikely to believe that we would ever use one of the high yield weapons that are all that remain in the current arsenal. They would be far more likely to believe that we might use a small bunker buster that would minimize the possibility of significant collateral damage.” The problem with that narrative is that it’s true. We would be far more likely to use such a weapon than the ones in the current arsenal, and there would be no lack of voices within DOE and DoD calling for its use if an appropriate opportunity ever arose.

    I can understand the agitation for a resumption of testing. It’s a lot sexier to make things that go boom than to serve as custodians for an aging pile of existing nukes. Unfortunately, the latter course is the wiser one. By resuming nuclear testing we would really be unilaterally surrendering a huge advantage, playing into the hands of our enemies and destabilizing the nuclear landscape at the same time.