Jeffrey LewisNot Your Daddy's Triad

Frank Munger in the Knoxville (TN) News-Sentinel (via John Fleck) reports on some interesting issues arising from stockpile life extension programs for the B61 and W87 warheads:

Former [Oak Ridge Y-12 plant] general manager Dennis Ruddy, in an interview earlier this fall, said it actually takes longer to refurbish old warheads than it did to build them the first time around.

The reason is partly because nuclear warheads were never built to be taken apart and then reassembled, Ruddy said.

“These things were made to come apart by evaporation,” he said. “Taking them apart is like taking apart a cheap child’s toy. Although the weapon itself is a very sophisticated thing, there are some primitive things inside the weapon.”

In addition to heavy-duty casings, there are structural items that are there just to keep things from moving around, Ruddy said.

“It isn’t very sophisticated, but it worked,” he said. “When you go in there and start taking it apart, you occasionally find the wall thickness on this part has more variability, the length has more variability. Is that important? When we put it back together, should we do things to reduce that variability?”

When “harvesting” parts from old warheads, officials may choose to reuse only those parts that meet the tighter specifications. That, in turn, poses a concern about whether there’ll be enough good ones to go around – even when the total number of warheads is being reduced.

Ruddy then expresses his view on the relationship between nuclear strategy and weapons performance, which Fleck realized was a brilliant title for the post:

This is not your daddy’s Triad … Now we’re a mean-and-lean kind of deployed force. We’re relying on weapons performing much more reliably. And what that means is when we find something that didn’t bother us 25 years ago, now we’ve got to go fix it.

Here are links to the DOE Inspector General Report on the B61 Program (August 2005) and the GAO Report on the Stockpile Life Extension Program (July 2003).