Skip navigationOf new weapons and nuclear genies

 

 

1. Who's got the bomb?

2. How nukes work

3. Bring forth the 4th generation

4. Never say "never"

5. An end to the search?

 

Old folks in Nevada can remember the night sky turning to day when the Atomic Energy Commission tested its products. Nevada Site Office, U.S. Department of Energy

 

Making sense
It's not easy to make sense of the threat posed by fourth-generation nuclear weapons. On the one hand, today's nuclear weapons are so cheap and effective that many critics and outsiders discount the threat of other nuclear technologies. "I don't see the point," says Frank Von Hippel, of Princeton University, a long-time observer of nuclear arms. "The current weapons are small and destructive enough."

Carey Sublette, a non-physicist who wrote the Nuclear weapons FAQ, says, "The ultimate problem is that there are some large technical obstacles in front of the idea of turning these theories into practical weapons. So far no-one has demonstrated that, even on the lab scale."orange and gray mushroom cloud with spare, mountainous background

Indeed, the skepticism is almost a chorus: "People have raised the specter, mostly in an effort to freak people out, that if we don't have the CTBT [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty], we'll eventually come up with a fourth-generation nuclear weapon," says Stephen Schwartz, publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

"Given all the money we are dumping into stockpile stewardship... theoretically it's possible," Schwartz adds. "I'm not a nuclear physicist ... but the people who are physicists tell me this is pretty far off."

Dis guy's a real physicist!
However, no less a nuclear physicist than Nobel -prize winning Hans Bethe, who helped invent the atomic bomb, worries about the results of a long, expensive research project. By 1995, the U.S. had spent $4-trillion (1995 dollars) on nuclear weapons.

Eventually, Bethe warns, that research could pay off -- or backfire. In his 1997 letter to President Clinton, Bethe said that, as one who had "followed closely, and participated in, the major issues of the nuclear arms race and disarmament during the last half century," it was time to halt research that could accelerate the nuclear arms race:

"It seems that the time has come for our Nation to declare that it is not working, in any way, to develop further weapons of mass destruction of any kind. In particular, this means not financing work looking toward the possibility of new designs for nuclear weapons. And it certainly means not working on new types of nuclear weapons, such as pure fusion weapons . ... If I were president, I would not fund computational experiments, or even creative thought designed to produce new categories of nuclear weapons."

What's your posture?
Since Bethe wrote, the Bush Administration brought a decidedly different view of nuclear weapons to Washington. These details in the administration's 2002 "Nuclear Posture Review" indicates a growing acceptance of nukes:

Build a new intercontinental ballistic missile by 2020, a new submarine-launched missile by 2030, and a new heavy bomber by 2040.

Reduce to 1,700 to 2,200 "operationally deployed" nuclear warheads by 2012. (Another accounting, however, puts the total at seven to nine times higher.)

Enlarge the Pantex plant in Texas for a greater rate of bomb-core disassembly or assembly.

Build a "Modern Pit Facility" to assemble or disassemble 500 plutonium bomb triggers ("pits") annually.

Expand the Oak Ridge plant in Tennessee to increase warhead production.

Christina Kucia, a research analyst at the Arms Control Association, says that while 4-gens don't seem menacing right now, with the nuclear posture review, "Policywise, the opening is there, the mentality of keeping nuclear weapons at the core of our security strategy is there. ... As long as that is there, there will always be a fear of creating new and more horrible ways of blowing ourselves up."

Four soldiers gather around missile with rounded orange head. Missile is about 12 feet long.Light the fuse and run! The Davy Crockett was a nuke-to-go. The tiny fission bomb packed the punch of "just" 20 tons of TNT. National Atomic Museum

The centerpiece of the U.S. nuclear research effort is the "science-based stockpile stewardship" program, which was justified by the 1992 suspension of nuclear tests. To ensure the "safety and reliability" of nuclear weapons, according to the "stewardship" rationale, bomb-makers must ramp up their research.

Although many experts say the aging problem is much less pressing, the stewardship program is also justified as a way to preserve the skills of weapons designers. In 1997, the New York Times (see "U.S. Plan Shows New..." in the bibliography) quoted a Department of Energy plan for the nuclear weapons labs: "The laboratories are currently working on programs to provide new or modified designs," and the work will "exercise a broad range of design skills." The labs have about 25,000 employees.

Kidder says the labs offer make-work projects to attract researchers who are reluctant to work on weapons. The non-classified projects allow aspiring scientists to do work that can get published and perhaps earn them positions in private industry. "The weapons labs need to keep people there with skills that are appropriate and relevant to the physics, science, engineering of nuclear weapons, because they have to maintain what they've got," he says. "If you want to keep people at the labs, with something to do," then it makes sense to sponsor non-classified projects in fields related to high-energy-density physics. "It does not mean there aren't people at the labs who are working on maintaining the stockpile, and doing some design work on thing that might be slight improvements on what we have, but that's not popular work."

shadowy, circular indention forms crater in brown earth.The aftermath of a below-ground atomic test at the Nevada Test Site. National Atomic Museum

But Jay Coughlin, director of Nukewatch of New Mexico, worries that the U.S. government is researching 4-gens. Coughlin, a veteran anti-nuclear activist, says the piper calls the tunes, and that the nuclear weapons labs were built to, well, research and design nukes. "There are three nuclear weapons labs, and all three have a fusion program of one kind or another. The interest is obvious...."

Physicist Arjun Makhijani agrees. "They have denied this, but I believe the purpose of NIF, the Sandia Z-pinch, and magnetized target fusion at LANL [Los Alamos National Lab] ... point toward the development of pure fusion weapons, without the fission component."

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