Stockpile Stewardship

A lot of our nuclear weapons are old, and it’s not clear that they still work. If we still did underground tests, we’d know for sure (and could fix any problems) – but we don’t do that.  We have a program called stockpile stewardship, that uses simulation programs and the data from laser-fusion experiments in an attempt to predict weapon efficacy.

I talked to some old friends who know as much about the nuclear stockpile as anyone: neither believes that that stockpile stewardship will do the job.  There are systems that you can simulate with essentially perfect accuracy and confidence, Newtonian gravitational mechanics for example: this isn’t one of them.

You had two approaches to a problem that was vital to the security of the United States:  option A was absolutely sure to work, option B might possibly work.

The Feds picked B.



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112 Responses to Stockpile Stewardship

  1. j says:

    The objective is to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the planet. We want the enemy’s weapons rot, and the condition they will allow that is that ours rot too. Hopefully, no one will attack if it is unsure of the reliability of its nuclear weapons.

    • Justin says:

      And then we could go back to the good old days of massive conventional clashes between industrial powers with conscripted armies. I always thought my life was incomplete with ‘the Stalingrad Experience’!

      • gcochran9 says:

        Thinking of my Dad, his brothers and brothers-in-law: 35 missions over Germany, shot down over East Prussia, captain in the Third Army under Patton, fighting as an infantryman in Normandy, on a destroyer escort charging the Yamato: you have to admit it was exciting.

        • TWS says:

          My uncle told me the story of wading ashore at Iwo Jima as a Navy corpsman. And he had a nifty Jap sword to go with the story. Sucker was still razor sharp after thirty years. What have nukes done but keep the peace? Get rid of them now. More uncertainty will make the froggy more likely to jump not less but by all means let’s get rid of the thing that kept Europe and Asia from all-out war for the last seventy years.

      • reiner Tor says:

        Having nuclear weapons around decreases the risk of a war happening, but doesn’t decrease it to zero. If the relations between Mother Russia and Uncle Sam will be similar to the last seventy years (mostly cold war, sometimes friendship), then I cannot imagine another two centuries without a crisis going really badly. As more time passes without a nuclear war, people will get complacent. In fact, many people are already quite complacent about how we survived over four decades of cold war, so – they reason – we’ll probably survive the next cold war either. And yeah, it’s very likely, but not 100%, only maybe 99%.

        • Justin says:

          Yeah, I agree. Frankly I’m a lot more worried about China than I am Russia. Who cares if they want neighboring slavic lands? Long as they stay away from Finland and the Baltics, which they seem liable to do, we’re good. The Red Chinese are ethno nationalists with an inferiority complex and the world’s biggest economy. They have a long memory, and from my time there, I got the impression that they wouldn’t mind paying the UK back for the Opium Wars or America for….I don’t know…being a rival. If they were white, people would be appalled by what their government does.

          • What I am worried about is no one know what in the hell to be worried about. We were told in the United States that we need to spend an enormous amount of our tax dollars on defense spending. That there was a Russian bear ready to fight us in World War 3. Well that was nonsense, once that empire crumbled into a heap of garage sales we were told to fear the muslim menace. Cochran says maybe a large number of our nuclear weapons are duds. I’m with J, let em rot. I believe J lives in Tel Aviv, now folks living there really have something to worry about. If the number of people who want you obliterated off the face of the earth is in the hundreds of millions, you worry, if they don’t well then maybe you can spend your excess billions on infrastructure rather than arming oneself against an opposing super power that no longer exists.

            I’ve been to China. We don’t have to worry too much about them. Lets us just say we are too economically interdependent at this point to start fighting each other. The whole world is becoming more and more economically interlocked and interdependent for large scale war. I don’t agree at all with Cochran we need to test our nuclear weapons now and then see if they work. Best possible outcome is none of them work but nobody knows it.

          • ursiform says:

            It might have been as high in the late 20s.

            But a war with China (at least in the foreseeable future) would happen through miscalculation, not intention.

          • I don’t see how China was more economically interdependent with the rest of the world in the past than they are right now. It isn’t possible. Their imports have increased by ten fold from 1999 to 2011. If their government ever because of aggressive military intent caused a economic embargo by a sizable percentage of the rest of the world their economy would collapse as well as their government. But that doesn’t prove that China can’t be aggressive in the future, as they say, shit happens. Economic embargoes can cause war too. Why did Japan go into World War 2?

          • ursiform says:

            China wasn’t. Europe was, and they still fought two wars.

  2. gcochran9 says:

    It can’t be done.

    • kernly says:

      The “eliminate nuclear weapons” thing can’t be done, but the “allow nukes to (potentially) rot” thing is ongoing. Disallowing tests also makes it so that you can’t make new, more efficient designs. Also, we’ll know the instant they test their stuff, so I don’t think there’s much of a national security concern, if they start testing so do we.

      Also, what’s “vital to the security of the United States” is not the nukes working, but the Russians thinking the nukes work. If the nukes work and the Russians don’t think they work, it doesn’t matter very much at all, except to give the survivors the sweetness of revenge in addition to the shattered country they inherit. If the nukes don’t work and the Russians think they do, again, doesn’t matter. Now, this is a fairly dangerous game to play, because the Russians might figure out (or think they figured out) whether they work while we still don’t know, but I’m not sure how they do that without doing research we’d detect one way or another. The game we were playing before the test ban wasn’t exactly safe, either.

      • reiner Tor says:

        Could the ban of nuclear tests discourage China and other emerging powers from increasing their stockpile? If it’s so, then this is a good thing.

        I’m quite surprised China still has only a small stockpile of a few hundred warheads (most of these cannot even reach US territory), but apparently most of the money they spent on modernizing their armed forces was spent on the conventional forces.

      • TWS says:

        I guess next time I hear something on my porch at midnight I should close my eyes and hope it goes away. If it is a raccoon well all I have is a mess to clean up in the morning and if it is a robber intent on a home invasion I’ll just get shot and not know about it. Sounds like a solid strategy to me.

    • melendwyr says:

      You like to make very confident, absolute claims. Perhaps these claims aren’t as supportable as their strength requires. If you wish to avoid making errors, not going beyond what you can rigorously demonstrate is a good way to start.

      • gcochran9 says:

        I make such statements when I’m sure. And I am sure that you can’t abolish nuclear weapons.

        • melendwyr says:

          I think you’re missing the point, Dr. Cochran. I know you make such statements when you’re sure. That’s the problem – that you’re certain when you should not be.

          Very few people defeat Sturgeon’s Law. I hate to see someone that is demonstrably capable of it making such an elementary mistake over and over again. Most of the people you’ve demonstrated to be wrong – or worse, not even wrong – are also certain about what they’re saying. We hope you can be better than that.

          • gcochran9 says:

            I guess I’ll have to disagree.

          • melendwyr says:

            “But let me lay it on the line: no one familiar with the history of war could ever have taken S. L. A. Marshall or Grossman seriously. No one.

            • gcochran9 says:

              I could have put it more strongly: now I will. Anyone that believed that most soldiers don’t fire in battle, or that they shoot to miss, was an utter pinhead, fully as demented as those people that bought into Bellesile’s “guns were rare in America back in colonial days.” Demented, ignorant, crazy, retarded, moronic, dishonest, mindless, thick-headed, idiotic, dense, out to lunch, obtuse, witless, dumb, simple, and spooney.

              I can be polite about it, but on many issues, it’s not the case that there is plenty of evidence and argument on both sides: one side is halfway reasonable and the other is utter, contemptible crap.

              Reminds me of the ’67 war in the middle East (which most Americans probably think was a surprise attack against Israel!) when the Egyptians claimed to have shot down the entire Israeli air force (nope) while the Israelis claimed to have shot down the entire Egyptian air force (not quite – they’d blown them up on the ground) – and the reporter said that the truth probably lay somewhere in-between.

              Not so: it often doesn’t.

          • ursiform says:

            Somewhere in between doesn’t actually mean close to the middle, but you make your point.

      • Stan D Mute says:

        He’s as safe in stating, “it can’t be done” as he would be in stating, “pigs can’t fly.” Your reply, “Nyah, Nyah, you can’t prove it” establishes for us only one thing. Next time, perhaps you could at least amuse us by offering your theory of how you think pigs might be coaxed into taking flight.

  3. ursiform says:

    North Korea, Pakistan, and India test. Presumably Iran will if it makes something to test.

    On the other hand, even if our nukes don’t work properly, there is a good chance they will make an awful mess if used, Maybe that is enough.

  4. reiner Tor says:

    But why did they push for the test ban? Why don’t countries test when the treaty is not yet in force?

    • Lawful Evil says:

      Testing is REALLY REALLY expensive. Just lighting one off to see if it goes is pretty expensive, especially if your stockpile is small, Instrumenting the test adequately to find out if anything unexpected happened is difficult, time consuming, and REALLY expensive. Bug stockpiles like USSR and USA pushed this because they thought they could cheat and get away with it. Small countries pushed it so they could limit the expansion of everyone else. Everyone lost interest when the detection network got good enough to prevent cheating (the current network can reliably detect a yield lower than 1kt.); but because of expense, no one really wants to waste resources actually testing. The leadership at DOE/NNSA has convinced themselves that the program will work if they spend enough money on it. Most of the real technical people are pretty skeptical. They pushed for RRW (Reliable Replacement Warhead) so we could design and build something that would work this way going forward, but it would have required a bunch of testing to get the data for the simulations so the political people killed it when they realized that. Having worked in Stockpile Stewardship for about 15 years I’d guess no more than 1/3 of our stockpile will work at anything like it’s intended performance; however it’s so big that’s probably enough.

  5. R. says:

    Can’t they stick a warhead on a space launcher, loop it around the moon followed by some compact instrumentation and detonate it there, out of view? And keep mum about it.

    How hard would it be for radioastronomers to notice a nuclear blast on the other side of the Moon? Would reflected light over interplanetary distances be even detectable?

  6. albert magnus says:

    As long as none of the strategic players are testing, it seems like a situation that could create a positive environment for the US since we spend much more resources on maintaining our stockpile. Of course, it also might end up that the Russian and Chinese stockpiles are so deteriorated they might start testing to maintain credibility.

    Since we live in world that believes we have a credible nuclear arsenal, I don’t think there would be a lot of positive diplomatic effects to testing.

    There could be a lot of innovation in nuclear weapons technology. The Russians are very interested in doing that sort of thing, too, so it is not like we could be doing it without an arm race of some sort.

  7. Whyvert says:

    But nukes turned out to be not very vital to the security of any country that has them. How are nukes vital to France’s, Pakistan’s, Britain’s, China’s, India’s etc etc security?

    • gcochran9 says:

      Well, if country X had a working arsenal and nobody else did, or if only their allies did, they could get away with a whole lot of crap. In other words, you’re nuts.

    • GoneWithTheWind says:

      This is the equivalent of saying that everything has been fine so why do we need police or a military force. Duh! The reason everything has been fine is because we do spend money and put in an effort to keep the world safe. Has it been perfect? Of course not and probably cannot be. But make no mistake the only reason I write this in Engish from the U.S. and not Russian or Chinese is because we had/have nukes.

    • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

      How well did it work out for Ukraine when they gave up their nukes?

      Why is Iran trying to get Nukes? Why did Israel get Nukes?

  8. doombuggy says:

    Politicians have always discounted the difficulties of the mechanical world. They like waving their hands over maps and making grand speeches, such as the French attempt at building the Panama canal: engineers Lepinay and Eiffel were brushed aside by politician Lesseps so he could go on to grand failure. On the next attempt, the American engineer John Frank Stevens was able to get in front of Congress and hold the facts in their face. The canal was ultimately built using Lepinay’s plan.

    • gcochran9 says:

      The real problem was malaria and yellow fever.

      • doombuggy says:

        Indeed, Stevens was really really good at moving dirt, but the first thing he did was buck the bureaucrats; stop the excavation; and bring in some sanitation and infrastructure.

        A modest and remarkable guy; a better role model for kids compared to most historical figures propped up today.

  9. JRM says:

    Forgive my ignorance, but I thought uranium weapons like Little Boy were simple enough that they didn’t need to be tested. Given a test ban, does it make sense to stock uranium weapons as a back up?

    • Ursiform says:

      Little Boy wasn’t tested, but it was also big and not very efficient. Today’s nukes are far more complex.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        I’m also told that “Little Boy” gun type bombs are also much more likely to accidently detonate than implosion type devices. GC probably can confirm (or deny) this.

  10. Jerome says:

    It is not clear that there is any advantage, at this point in history, to having nuclear weapons that work. As long as others suppose that they work. In fact, it could be argued that a nuclear weapon that detonates has failed, since the reason it was created was to prevent the necessity of employing it.

    That said, someone is going to detonate all those bombs the Pakis are shuttling around in vans. I just hope Sagan was wrong about nuclear winter,

  11. Patrick Boyle says:

    No doubt I fail to understand all the subtleties of the issue but it seems to me you could just drop all your suspect bombs on Mecca and see how they do.

    • melendwyr says:

      That would be inefficiently evil. It would be more effective to secretly drop a couple on Tel Aviv. That way you’d get Mecca nuked, and a lot more locations into the bargain.

  12. L says:

    Are we uncertain about the radioactive decay part of the warhead or the mechanical side of it or the combination of both therein? I’m guessing radioactive decay, as the enriched plutonium they put in warheads are naturally unstable (decay), in which case, aren’t they still good for a few hundred years?

    Wiki says plutonium 238 half life is 87.7 years,

    I think I just answered my own question =p, well, guess they’re busy modeling if the bomb will still go if it looses fractions of heavy stuff.

  13. dearieme says:

    Don’t you worry. The USA will prove to have been as well prepared for nuclear war as she was for the arrival of Ebola.

  14. Ravelin says:

    Is there any possibility of performing a nuclear test today, of whatever yield and in whatever environment, (with the present test-ban/detection infrastructure in place) and still avoiding detection?

    Furthermore, how plausible are the rumors that the 1979 Vela incident was in fact a clandestine nuclear test?

    • Well if the violator of the test ban treaty is Israel and the only satellite that detects the nuclear blast is monitored by United States than what do you think will happen? The 1979 Vela incident is widely believed to be a nuclear test by Israel and South Africa.

  15. j says:

    Let them rot. Bomb makers have a vested interest as well a professional passion in maintaining alive the bomb making “industry” and in designing more advanced systems. As we have seen in other technological industries, progress can be amazingly fast: in electronics, in ten years they went from backpack radio transmitters to watch sized phones that cost almost nothing, We dont want a similar revolution in nuclear bombs, we dont want simple, cheap and accessible advanced weapons. There are too many Al Qaidas lurking around.

    • Toddy Cat says:

      The assumption seems to be that if we don’t develop simple, cheap, and accessible nuclear weapons, no one else will. I’m not sure that this is a valid assumption.

      • j says:

        The only viable future, may be, is an united planetary dictatorship – forever.

        May be after WWIII.

        • Toddy Cat says:

          “an united planetary dictatorship – forever.”

          I read lots of science-fiction stories like this back in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Somehow, it never seemed to work out, and you can see why. A planetary dictatorship would be quite a ball of wax to handle.

          • gcochran9 says:

            If a world government abjured the most effective weaponry, rebellions might well succeed. You could probably abolish fission and fusion weapons if you came up with something far more effective, but somehow I don’t think that’s what people have in mind.

          • reiner Tor says:

            If a world government abjured the most effective weaponry, rebellions might well succeed.

            Well, it’s not as if you could easily build a nuclear weapon. It’s enough for the theoretical World Government to effectively control the most important industrial centers, and have a strong enough (and easily deployable) conventional military force. If bad comes to worse, the world government can still build their own, but I don’t think even a World Government would be so evil as to use nukes on someone who is still crushable with conventional force. Moreover, if a rebellion succeeds in a province (country) which is difficult to squelch by conventional force because of its sheer size and/or difficult terrain and where there are plenty of nuclear plants (I’m thinking about a country like Russia or China), then the World Government might be screwed if it only started to produce those nukes after the rebels started to build them.

            However, a half-skillful World Government could have strong enough control over the planet never to need to face such a situation. Like Tokugawa Japan also managed to greatly reduce the number of firearms in circulation, by the early nineteenth century they barely had weapons at all, all the while Dutch traders with much more effective firearms were visiting the country in small numbers, but even though highly effective weapons were possible to obtain (definitely not more difficult than to build nukes in the 21st century for someone who doesn’t have them), until the appearance of outside powers made the government abolish the sankin-kotai system (they thought it might be a good idea so that the daimyos could build their vassal armies), there was never ever a serious risk of a rebellion at all. After the sankin-kotai was abolished, the shogunate came to an end within a few years, even though at that time the bakufu was militarily speaking still by far the strongest power in the realm, having acquired a lot of modern weaponry, including things like steam warships (which their opponents never had). It also needed a crazy person like the last Tokugawa shogun, who abandoned his troops in the middle of a battle because he saw that his enemies were using the imperial flag or something.

            So I think while we know from the sorry lesson of the USSR that nukes don’t protect an empire against a fall, similarly the lack of nukes probably can’t be too harmful to a World Government as long as nobody have them, and as long as said government had more or less effective control over any important industrial center on the planet.

            Am I the only one who finds the idea of such a world government actually extremely creepy?

            • gcochran9 says:

              Worse than creepy. Anyhow, as the sf writers have pointed out, such a government would have to suppress essentially all science and engineering research, lest it result in something that could beat them. Even then it’s likely to fail eventually, since totally suppressing knowledge means that you don’t even know what to be scared of – and if you don’t totally suppress, who watches the watchers?

              • reiner Tor says:

                Eventually it will be over, just like everything else. But it can certainly last for a few centuries like Tokugawa Japan did. If I were from a country or ethnic group oppressed by this world government, it would not be much consolation knowing how they are going to go under within a few centuries. In the meantime, they could still exterminate my people many times over.

          • Gordo says:

            How’s about a world government that didn’t keep scientific knowledge to the elite but instead caused the other 99% to lose the ability to understand complex science or to innovate?

          • Greying Wanderer says:

            A world government that comes before a clear understanding of the genetics of human nature would be hell imo.

      • Ravelin says:

        I think that the laws of physics constrain any would-be nuclear-armed terrorists pretty well. For example, you can’t have a nuclear device without sufficient fissile material, which isn’t easy to come by.

        • j says:

          The argument that a world government would supress uncontrolled scientific research is strong. But with a miserable life, what is the alternative? To have two or three or many independent entities compete forever? Unlike in Orwell’s 1984, the situation would be unstable. One model would seize the upper hand and liquidate the others. What does say the game theory? Are they still playing the cold war?

          • Toddy Cat says:

            Personally, I think that a world government would be a disaster, but there’s no sense in either worrying about or hoping for something that is simply impossible at this point in history. There had damned well better be an alternative, because world government ain’t happening.

          • j says:

            PS.: Most of the nuclear stockpile must be in working condition. WWII technology was surprisingly robust: one can buy a vintage field phone and it will work (may be the electrolytic or paper capacitors need renewing).

  16. Cracker1 says:

    The use of nuclear weapons is just a matter of time. Some “bad guys” somewhere will do it. How do I know this? Because the “good guys” have already used them. And if the good guys will use them, well………

    • MawBTS says:

      The Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult (of sarin gas fame) did attempt to obtain weapon-usable uranium from Russia’s Kurchatov Institute. Someone’s going to slip up eventually.

      • reiner Tor says:

        Or think about the Cuban crisis, when the Soviet sub was already authorized to use live (tactical) nuclear warheads. I’m not sure what the American response would have been, after they would only have lost a ship (or a few ships, I’m not sure), but still.

        One such crisis will eventually be miscalculated by both sides.

        I’ve seen people (not politicians or experts, but intelligent upper middle class people) advocating for immediately deploying NATO troops in Ukraine, and when in response I pointed out the fact that Russia is still a nuclear superpower, the answer stunned me: “Well, they won’t dare use them anyway, will they?” After like three or four centuries with many cold wars and no nuclear warfare, somebody somewhere will eventually think he can get away with something against a nuclear power without getting a nuclear response. Because, you know, nobody has ever used nukes since 1945, so it must be a safe bet to assume nobody will ever use them. This argument will get very strong by 2432 or something. If the AIs won’t kill us all in the meantime, forcing us to fight against them under the leadership of John Connor.

  17. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    Uh oh. The Feds have moved into ScienceMag:

    Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines

    I think they have recycled Stereotype Threat.

  18. stalin says:

    dave chamberlin says:
    Why did Japan go into World War 2?
    I have often wondered this. True we pushed them a lot(scrap iron embargo, frozen bank accounts, prohibition of panama canal use, and primarily oil embargo), but still. I have concluded the government of Japan was clinically insane. The hallucination was the conquest of China. But if a government can become clinically insane, then any government can become clinically insane and that’s a sobering thought.

    • Toddy Cat says:

      The fact that anyone in 1930’s Japan who tried to talk sense got assassinated didn’t help, either.

    • reiner Tor says:

      They weren’t clinically insane.

      They were pushed into a corner, and were afraid that there would be a military coup by young officers if they met American demands (which were very humiliating, and the Japanese government couldn’t be sure if there wouldn’t be more demands once they met the ones presented to them), so essentially from two evils (civil war at home or war against the US) they chose the one which posed less immediate danger. You know, if you had to choose between being beheaded tomorrow or losing a war four years hence, you might also choose the latter, especially if the first version would mean the loss of your country’s greater power status all the same.

      Also they didn’t quite understand democratic countries. When they had attacked autocratic Russia, the autocrat decided to end the war with the loss of some territories after facing a revolution at home. In democratic US the population was outraged, so there was no way the leaders of the country would’ve made peace with Japan even if they had wanted to.

      Actually the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War was just as reckless, since Russia at the time was much stronger than Japan. The surprise attack worked for a while there, too, they even won their Midway (Tsushima), but after that they quickly lost steam, and the war became a stalemate and a war of attrition. If the 1905 Russian revolution didn’t save them, Japan would have lost just as she lost in 1941-45.

    • Bill says:

      I don’t know if they were insane in the sense that they thought they could win a long war with the US. They knew they couldn’t win a drawn-out war with the US and hoped that early success coupled with German success in Europe would result in the US giving up and suing for peace. They knew they were gambling and hoped that the bluff would work.

      • reiner Tor says:

        One can argue that there was a miscalculation on the part of President Roosevelt (who didn’t believe that his embargoes would lead to a surprise Japanese attack on the fleet at Pearl Harbor) and another miscalculation on the part of the Japanese (who thought Germany might win in Russia in 1942 and the US would be forced to make peace with Japan).

        Such miscalculations will lead to nuclear war, sometime in the future.

    • ursiform says:

      “Why did Japan go into World War 2?”

      Because they wanted to control China. I think the actual question here is why did Japan attack the US?

  19. Hipster says:

    Touching on something from the past, Cochran has supposed that Homosexuality may be caused, or influenced, by a pathogen.

    My question about that would be, why does this pathogen not spread more rapidly, being that there is no “cure” or “treatment” or even an acknowledgement that it exists? People work with gay colleagues, families grow up with gay children, classrooms have gay students, we take the train and eat with gay people, etc.

    Is the idea that it’s a pathogen that perhaps is common but only has the extreme effect of lifelong homosexuality on people with certain genetic profiles? It seems like an interesting idea but I’m just at a loss thinking of all the gay people I’ve known in my life, and how their gayness did not really seem to spread to anyone.

    • reiner Tor says:

      It could be a childhood disease that causes some brain damage, which then manifests itself as becoming gay after puberty. We don’t know how it’s spread at all, but probably not with casual contact. For example you could spend a lot of time in the company of people with peptic ulcers without contracting it, even though it’s usually also an infection caused by Helicobacter pylori.

      I propose you read Paul W. Ewald’s Plague Time. He doesn’t mention the “gay germ” hypothesis, but he describes several such diseases that are or could be caused by infections.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      “their gayness did not really seem to spread to anyone”

      If it’s a bug it might be something in the womb that effects brain development so the bug itself might not be anything to do with homosexuality.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Polio is catching, but paralysis isn’t.

  20. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:
  21. Peter Akuleyev says:

    I have heard it mooted by a few people that the reason for the US’s suddenly aggressive stance towards Russia is that US intelligence is convinced the old Soviet stockpile is now no longer functional. Or at least convinced that the Russians themselves aren’t sure if their nukes work. Without nukes Russia is well on its way to becoming a second rate power.

    • gcochran9 says:

      People working in US intelligence may well have opinions, but they don’t know jack about nuclear weapons. I once said that Iraq couldn’t possibly have a live nuclear weapons program, given their lack of resources and the fact that we hadn’t detected any sign of it – in part, a ‘capacity’ argument. I later heard that the whole CIA had at most one guy who knew enough to do that casual, back-of-the-envelope analysis correctly, and he was working on something else.

  22. j says:

    US intelligence must necessarily have a deep knowledge of Soviet nuclear weapons as per the 1994 Massandra Accords. Ukraine was then the third largest nuclear power and agreed to transfer all its nuclear warheads to Russia and accepted U.S. assistance in dismantling missiles, bombers, and nuclear infrastructure. It may be presumed that the American experts assisting the dismantling had their eyes open and their brains were not re-formatted before returing home.

  23. It would be very unwise for us to resume nuclear testing. We don’t exist in a vacuum. We live 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 the others to catch up. At the moment, the United States is the country with an advantage.

    Among other things, 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.

    The notion that “it’s not clear that (the weapons in our stockpile) still work,” is unsupported by any credible evidence that they won’t work. Why, exactly, are they supposed to be so unreliable? The codes would certainly be unreliable if they were expected to predict the results of events that had never happened before, but that’s not the case. The plutonium and highly enriched uranium in weapons will not deteriorate, unless we’re talking about periods of many millennia. The rate of decay of tritium is known, and it can be replaced as needed. High explosives must occasionally be replaced, but there is no problem with testing them, if need be in conjunction with surrogate weapons materials. What, then, is supposed to fail on the weapons in our arsenal?

    Obviously weapon designers would love to resume testing, along with many of the folks at NNSA. Setting of massive explosions is much sexier than acting as custodians for an aging pile of nuclear weapons. However, the resumption of testing would simply not be in the national interest. It would amount to tossing a huge advantage right out the window.

    • gcochran9 says:

      You are mistaken. When we build a barn, we use materials that are well-suited for construction: strong, dimensionally stable, enduring. We use plutonium because it makes a good weapon, not because it’s easy to work with, or safe, or stable. It’s not anything of those things. Plutonium has seven allotropes (like graphite and diamond forms of carbon) with similar internal energies but significantly different densities and crystal structures. “This makes plutonium very sensitive to changes in temperature, pressure, or chemistry, and allows for dramatic volume changes following phase transitions from one allotropic form to another.[11] The densities of the different allotropes vary from 16.00 g/cm3 to 19.86 g/cm3.[14]

      The presence of these many allotropes makes machining plutonium very difficult, as it changes state very readily. For example, the α form exists at room temperature in unalloyed plutonium. It has machining characteristics similar to cast iron but changes to the plastic and malleable β form (beta) at slightly higher temperatures.”

      Testing would guarantee that the damn things work. If we ever found out that they didn’t, we couldn’t rely on bluff: somehow, other powers would come to know every engineering details of that failure mode. They might figure it out for themselves, for that matter.

      Then you have accumulating radiation damage – ongoing spontaneous fission messes up the crystalline structure. Dislocated atoms are at a higher energy (Wigner energy) : if enough dislocations build up, you eventually get rapid swelling and density change, judging from accelerated aging studies (in reactors, with high neutron flux) with on materials similar crystal structure. . ” The length of this incubation is unknown for weapon-grade plutonium and cannot be predicted.”

      You also get a buildup of americium with time, which makes the plutonium increasing radioactive. Gives off gamma rays, which have ungood effects on some bomb materials. Cumulative.

      And so on.

      You can’t uninvent the bomb. You need them to work for deterrence. You need tests to make sure that they work. I like the Z machine, have my doubts about that Livermore laser, but none of that matters – to know, you gotta test.

      We have a lot of people whose job it is to bullshit this problem, but I am under no compulsion to pay them any mind.

      • I have no pecuniary or professional interest in bullshitting this problem one way or the other, and what I say is true whether you pay it any mind or not. The metallurgy, including the phase changes of plutonium, is well known, and irrelevant to the question of whether we should resume testing or not, as plutonium can be phase-stabilized by the addition of a nominal 1% gallium. The idea that we currently have no data or any way of experimentally testing the relevant differences between “new” and “aged” plutonium is nonsense, as is the apparent assumption that we are incapable of manufacturing new pits if that should become necessary.

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