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How do you dismantle a nuclear weapon?

How To Dismantle A Nuclear Weapon, Gizmodo, Terrell Jermaine Starr and Jalopnik, May 24, 2017 Dismantling the world’s 15,000 nuclear weapons is one the most important geopolitical challenges humanity faces. That number seems bleak, given the current state of affairs. But if you wanted to dismantle just one warhead, here is what it would take.

Those warheads make the world a dangerous place, but we have to keep in mind there were more than 70,000 nuclear warheads in existence at one point. Though Cold War-era non-proliferation treaties were central to the massive cuts, most nuclear warheads were retired or dismantled during the 1990s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. President George H.W. Bush cut 9,500 during his term as president; in 1992 alone, he cut 5,300 warheads, which was the most by any president ever in history. During the 2000s, his son cut the stockpile by more than half to 5,270 warheads. Together, the son and dad president team cut 14,801 warheads from the stockpile.

Comparatively, President Barack Obama cut a mere 507 warheads, but relations between Russia and the U.S. were quite chilly during his term and both nations increasingly saw each other as military threats.

But the U.S. and Russia have their own arms issues. The New START treaty between the United States and Russia is the most important non-proliferation treaty in the world right now, yet its extension appears to be in limbo. India and Pakistan, though they only have 250 warheads between them, could ruin the earth’s atmosphere if they ever engaged in a regional nuclear conflict.

Politics aside, however, once a nation agrees to cut its nuclear stockpile, how does it happen, where and when? We spoke with a few nuclear weapons experts who walked us through the process of how this actually happens, with the focus on how the Americans do it.

The Question Of Dismantlement Versus Retirement

Once a president decides to cut down the nuclear arsenal, he or she must decide if they want to retire or dismantle the warheads. It is important to know the difference. Tom Collina, Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund — an anti-nuclear weapon philanthropic group — says that current treaties do not focus on the actual dismantlement of weapons.

“They only require that weapons be retired or removed from service,” he said. “They do not require that weapons be dismantled. So, you can have the New START treaty lowering the number of deployed systems you can have, but that doesn’t mean those weapons get dismantled. It just means they get put into storage.”

There is no verification process for determining if a nuclear warhead is destroyed or not once they get to storage, because they are simply are too small to see from space, Collina explains.

Missiles are different.

Those, along with bombers and submarines, are under treaty, and their dismantlement can be verified via satellite, simply because they’re so big. You can see a missile being chopped in half or a bomber’s wings clipped from space.

But a nuclear warhead itself, which is much smaller? That is simply not possible.

Right now, there are around 2,800 warheads in retirement in the U.S., meaning they are no longer stockpiled. As the State Department explains, once a retired warhead is removed from its delivery platform, it is no longer useable and is not considered part of the nuclear stockpile. The tritium bottles are also removed. Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen that is critical to powering a bomb. Other “limited life components,” like the neutron generators, are also removed.

The warhead is stored in a depot where they hopefully will move on to the next process of being destroyed.

Separating A Warhead

The key components of a nuclear weapon, besides the metals used to construct its exterior, are uranium, plutonium, tritium boost gas, the neutron generator and other elements, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. And separating a warhead is the hardest and most dangerous part of dismantlement.

The National Nuclear Security Administration is the governmental body that oversees the dismantlement process, which takes place at the Pantex Plant, in the Panhandle of Texas. Pantex is the primary plant where nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly occurs. The warhead is taken to an underground bunker, where its parts are separated.

just one warhead, here is what it would take.

Those warheads make the world a dangerous place, but we have to keep in mind there were more than 70,000 nuclear warheads in existence at one point. Though Cold War-era non-proliferation treaties were central to the massive cuts, most nuclear warheads were retired or dismantled during the 1990s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. President George H.W. Bush cut 9,500 during his term as president; in 1992 alone, he cut 5,300 warheads, which was the most by any president ever in history. During the 2000s, his son cut the stockpile by more than half to 5,270 warheads. Together, the son and dad president team cut 14,801 warheads from the stockpile.

Comparatively, President Barack Obama cut a mere 507 warheads, but relations between Russia and the U.S. were quite chilly during his term and both nations increasingly saw each other as military threats.

But the U.S. and Russia have their own arms issues. The New START treaty between the United States and Russia is the most important non-proliferation treaty in the world right now, yet its extension appears to be in limbo. India and Pakistan, though they only have 250 warheads between them, could ruin the earth’s atmosphere if they ever engaged in a regional nuclear conflict.

Politics aside, however, once a nation agrees to cut its nuclear stockpile, how does it happen, where and when? We spoke with a few nuclear weapons experts who walked us through the process of how this actually happens, with the focus on how the Americans do it.

The Question Of Dismantlement Versus Retirement

Once a president decides to cut down the nuclear arsenal, he or she must decide if they want to retire or dismantle the warheads. It is important to know the difference. Tom Collina, Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund — an anti-nuclear weapon philanthropic group — says that current treaties do not focus on the actual dismantlement of weapons.

“They only require that weapons be retired or removed from service,” he said. “They do not require that weapons be dismantled. So, you can have the New START treaty lowering the number of deployed systems you can have, but that doesn’t mean those weapons get dismantled. It just means they get put into storage.”

There is no verification process for determining if a nuclear warhead is destroyed or not once they get to storage, because they are simply are too small to see from space, Collina explains.

Missiles are different.

Those, along with bombers and submarines, are under treaty, and their dismantlement can be verified via satellite, simply because they’re so big. You can see a missile being chopped in half or a bomber’s wings clipped from space.

But a nuclear warhead itself, which is much smaller? That is simply not possible.

Right now, there are around 2,800 warheads in retirement in the U.S., meaning they are no longer stockpiled. As the State Department explains, once a retired warhead is removed from its delivery platform, it is no longer useable and is not considered part of the nuclear stockpile. The tritium bottles are also removed. Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen that is critical to powering a bomb. Other “limited life components,” like the neutron generators, are also removed.

The warhead is stored in a depot where they hopefully will move on to the next process of being destroyed.

Separating A Warhead

The key components of a nuclear weapon, besides the metals used to construct its exterior, are uranium, plutonium, tritium boost gas, the neutron generator and other elements, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. And separating a warhead is the hardest and most dangerous part of dismantlement.

The National Nuclear Security Administration is the governmental body that oversees the dismantlement process, which takes place at the Pantex Plant, in the Panhandle of Texas. Pantex is the primary plant where nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly occurs. The warhead is taken to an underground bunker, where its parts are separated.

Phillip Coyle, the Senior Science Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told me some of the valuable metals, such as the copper and gold, are recycled.

The toughest issue comes with the high explosive components, which are burned and the resulting ashes are shipped to an EPA-approved disposal site. Uranium-bearing components are separated and shipped to the Y-12 site at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. (We will get into what it takes to safely get rid of uranium later)

How Long Does The Dismantlement Process Take?

It depends.

Last year, the New York Times reported that the Obama Administration dismantled the fewest number of warheads since entering office in 2008. Obama, who was very vocal about cutting the number of nuclear weapons in the world, was criticised for his words not matching his actions; in 2015, only 109 weapons were dismantled.

But you can’t blame Obama entirely. In that same Times report, Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, is cited as saying that Obama had to contend with a Congress that clashed with his non-proliferation vision and negotiate with a difficult Kremlin………

How Much Does It Cost To Build A Warhead Versus Dismantling It?

This is not an easy question to answer, because the government doesn’t make it easy for us to know. But the costs associated with a nuclear weapon deal mainly with the warhead and the delivery system. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the United States hasn’t built warheads since the 1990s, but it is refurbishing several types to extend their shelf life.

The cost for the Department of Energy to extend the life of 2,000 submarine-based W76 warheads cost of roughly $US2 ($3) million each. The B61 bomb will be more costly, it will require more modifications. For 400 or 500 B61 bombs, costs total around $US10 ($13) billion or $US20 ($27) million each.

“Compared with the cost of designing, manufacturing, and deploying nuclear weapons, and the cost of nuclear weapon delivery systems, the process for dismantling nuclear warheads is not particularly expensive,” Coyle said. “Whether a dismantlement takes on average one day or three days, that is a very small part of the time and cost of building and deploying nuclear weapons in the first place.”

Dismantling of all of the world’s nuclear weapons is indeed a goal most sober-minded policy makers and non-proliferation advocates strive for. But doing so requires navigating complex global politics, galvanizing legislative will, easing local community concerns and mastering the science of getting rid of the nuclear waste separated from the warhead.

Of course, there is a great way to avoid all of these issues in the future altogether.

“Better that the material not be produced in the first place,” Collina said. “But it’s too late for that.” https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2017/05/how-to-dismantle-a-nuclear-weapon
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May 24, 2017 - Posted by | Reference, weapons and war

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