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

"It was a rite of passage," says Hugh Gusterson, a cultural anthropologist now working at Stanford University who has spent years studying the people who work at nuclear weapons labs, particularly Lawrence Livermore. "If you were a new designer, the way you showed your mettle and proved yourself, the way you became a member of the tribe, was by conducting a test."

Testing is what attracted the best and brightest minds to weapons work, and afforded scientists tangible results from their experiments.

"The experience I got was direct," says David Dearborn, a research physicist who has been at Lawrence Livermore for 14 years, long enough to have gone to the desert. "When I took something out to Nevada and the earth shook, it was a straightforward measurement. 'Did it shake as much as I said it was going to?' It was a pretty straightforward pass-fail test."

Obviously, there are practical reasons for testing as well. Without continued testing, the labs say, they cannot vouch for the safety and reliability of the arsenal. Weapons age, some more gracefully than others. Parts corrode or decay over time. Periodic tests are needed to ensure that our weapons won't go off accidentally, but will go off with gusto should we ever need them.

Maintaining the "safety and reliability" of the stockpile is a recurring mantra of the weapons labs, and the two words mean distinctly different things.

A "safe" warhead is one that won't go off when it's not supposed to, after being dropped from a truck, for instance. Almost everyone agrees that our warheads are safe, in that regard, and will not become less so as time passes.

"When they talk about safety, they primarily mean insurance against accidental detonation, and that is a character of the design of the weapons. It is not a function of their age," says Christopher Paine, a senior research associate with the Natural Resources Defense Council who tracks weapons projects.

Reliability is a whole other matter. A reliable warhead is one that not only explodes when it's supposed to, but also blows up with the full destructive power intended by its designers. A nuclear bomb that was designed to blow up half of Moscow is supposed to blow up half of Moscow. Should only one-quarter of Moscow be incinerated, the bomb was not reliable.

"If you drop a 9 kiloton bomb, and everybody is killed by only 8 kilotons, they were killed by an unreliable bomb," is the way Marylia Kelley, head of a Livermore anti-nuclear group, looks at it.

Designers say they aren't sure how much effect age has on a bomb's reliability, but that aging weapons require vigilance.

"We have to maintain our current high confidence in the reliability and safety of these weapons into the future," says Sidney Drell, a physicist and deputy director at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. "If there's something wrong in the warhead, we have to hear the bell ringing." Drell, a pedigreed nuclear scientist, is chairman of a committee that oversees the operations of Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos for the University of California. The labs are operated by UC under contract with the U.S. Department of Energy.

The fruits of testing for the U.S. were a massive and varied arsenal. Over the years, more than 70,000 warheads of 65 different types were built, according to research compiled by the Brookings Institution. They included mammoth bombs like the B-53 "city buster" -- a bulbous 4-ton beast reminiscent of the one Slim Pickens rode to the ground in the movie Dr. Strangelove. There were also wily weapons like the Davy Crockett, a 51-pound missile that soldiers could carry out into the field and fire like a mortar.

From 1945 until 1962, most tests were performed above ground. In 1963, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the first arms treaty agreeing to stop nuclear testing in the atmosphere. The tests were moved underground, and remained there until we temporarily suspended them in 1992.

The test data -- even the existence of the tests -- was among the nation's most highly classified information. Only over time did the numbers start to come out. From 1945 through 1991, the U.S. exploded 1,030 nuclear test devices, some brand-new designs, others experiments to refine existing weapons, according to figures compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group which closely monitors nuclear weaponry.

In comparison, the Soviet Union is believed to have conducted 715 tests, France 210, China 45, and the United Kingdom 45, according to NRDC figures. India, of course, just conducted five tests. It also conducted one test in 1974.

Warheads came and went, retired and replaced as better versions came along. Our stockpile peaked in 1966, when we had 32,193 warheads on missiles and bombs aboard submarines, under Kansas cornfields, and in the bays of our nuclear bombers. As staggering as that number may seem, to some in the military it was never large enough. At one point in the late 1950s, the U.S. Army alone wanted 151,000 nuclear weapons.

Treaties now limit the size of the U.S. stockpile. By 1997, we had trimmed our cache of warheads to 12,500, and the number should keep going down as new arms reduction accords are adopted and weapons are dismantled.

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