Building a Better Bomb

While condemning India for its nuclear testing, the U.S. government quietly funnels billions to research programs aimed at creating an ever-more-virulent nuclear arsenal

Treaties obligate us to reduce the number of weapons we have, but they don't stop us from overhauling the ones we keep. And they don't stop us from hiring dozens of new scientists and asking them to design completely new bombs. As long as we keep the blueprints on the shelf, saving them for a later day, we can design as many completely new weapons as we like.

The Mod 11 is not the only surprise U.S. weapons designers have been working on lately. Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, for instance, is well on the way to developing yet another updated version of the B-61 called BIOS, for Bomb Impact Optimization System.

This time, they're grafting an old warhead onto a glide bomb, a bomb with wings allowing it to fly on its own for some distance after being dropped from a plane. The B-2s won't have to fly as close to their targets to deliver the bomb, reducing their risk of being hit by anti-aircraft fire. Like the Mod 11, the BIOS bomb is an earth penetrator.

Designers at Sandia and Los Alamos are also developing a new bomb for the Navy. Details are hard to come by -- just a few mentions in defense publications and government documents -- but the Submarine Warhead Protection Program is apparently finishing a new warhead to serve as a backup for the Trident anti-ballistic missiles that travel on our nuclear-equipped submarines.

Although they are still being developed, the BIOS bomb and Navy warhead also are not "new" in the official sense of the word. They are only an indication of what lies ahead.

The three major weapons labs -- Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore here in the Bay Area -- are already hiring the brightest young scientists they can attract, and preparing to equip them with the most sophisticated scientific machinery in the history of weapons research.

The world's most powerful laser, designed to spark tiny thermonuclear explosions in a test chamber slightly bigger than a Tic Tac, is being built at Livermore. A new computer system, envisioned as the fastest and most powerful ever built, is being cobbled together to link all of the weapons labs.

Scientists at Los Alamos are preparing to resume production of one of the most critical parts of a nuclear warhead, the plutonium "pit" that acts as a trigger, starting the thermonuclear reaction. No new pits have been produced in the U.S. since 1989, and the Rocky Flats plant in Colorado where they used to be made has been closed. But Los Alamos announced just two months ago that it successfully completed a prototype for a new pit. By 2001, the lab should be able to manufacture between 20 and 50 of the warhead triggers each year.

Altogether, we are planning to spend more than $4 billion a year on nuclear weapons research for at least the next decade. From the advent of the Manhattan Project until the end of the Cold War, the country spent an average of $3.7 billion a year on nuclear weapons programs. Inflation doesn't account for the difference. Those are the figures when adjusted to allow for the changing value of the dollar over the past 50-plus years.

You probably have heard little about this new program, which is called Stockpile Stewardship. The name sounds benign, as though the government were establishing a rest home for aging warheads, with white-coated scientists keeping an eye on the vital signs of old missiles.

But if you look closely at the program, pore through the reports, read the science, it is clear that Stockpile Stewardship is much more than that. It is a decided effort by the U.S. to remain at the cutting edge of nuclear weapons research. Indefinitely.

In March 1996, the director of Sandia lab, C. Paul Robinson, testified about the stewardship program before a U.S. Senate subcommittee. One snippet of his testimony unsettles anti-nuclear activists to this day because of its implicit acknowledgement that there is no end in sight to our weapons research programs.

"We see from our planning charts that many of the systems in stockpile will require replacement at about the same time at some point in the first half of the next century," Robinson testified. "The engineers and scientists who will do that work are probably entering kindergarten this year."

Nuclear weapons have changed dramatically in the past 50 years. They've gotten bigger, and smaller, safer to handle, easier to deliver, and more precise in their explosive power. Current weapons make the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki look crude.

But for all the advances, all the envelopes pushed and nuclear physics problems solved, one assumption has remained immutable -- that there is no way, truly, to know if a new bomb is going to work until you try it. Thou shalt blow things up is the First Commandment of weapons makers.

For years, that has meant going to the desert, either in New Mexico or Nevada. Bomb tests weren't just functional. They were the cynosure of the nuclear weapons world. Promotions, budgets, prestige, the very worth of nuclear scientists was determined by how often they went to the desert, and how well their creations performed there.

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