the USA program for spending $1 trillion on nuclear weapons

The nuclear money pit, The Economist  Does America really need a new plutonium production line? Dec 15th 2014 | LOS ANGELES THE RECENT sabre rattling by Vladimir Putin may have unwittingly done what the United States Congress has failed to do for decades: refocus attention—and billions of additional dollars—on overhauling America’s nuclear arsenal. The $585 billion defence bill for the next fiscal year sailed through the House of Representatives last week with broad bipartisan support, and then did the same in the Senate on December 12th, despite all the fractious squabbling over the $1.1 trillion government funding measure.
More pertinently, the $11.7 billion request for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a branch of the Department of Energy that oversees nuclear weapons, naval reactors and nonproliferation activities on behalf of the military, represents a 4% increase over the previous year. The biggest chunk of that—covering work on modernising the country’s nuclear weapons—is to increase by 7%. All this at a time when mandated “sequestration” cuts are supposed to be reducing military spending.

All told, the federal government intends allocating up to $1 trillion to upgrade the country’s missiles, bombers and submarines over the coming decades. A third of that is to be spent improving the country’s nuclear weapons. …………Right now, the NNSA’s main concern is the production of “pits”—the hollow fissile core of a nuclear warhead. These were made at the Rocky Flats plant built near Boulder, Colorado, until the facility was closed in 1989, following a raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for environmental and safety breaches. The plant has remained shut ever since, despite numerous attempts to reopen it.

The fabrication of pits, along with the manufacture of the dense beryllium tamper and reflector layers that surround a fissile core, was subsequently relocated to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, one of the two laboratories in the United States where nuclear weapons are designed (the other is the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California). Los Alamos is now thought capable of producing 20 pits a year, though the NNSA sees 80 or more being made there annually.

In 1993, the cost of transferring the plutonium and beryllium work from Rocky Flats to Oak Ridge was put at $660m. A geological survey subsequently raised the relocation cost to $5.8 billion. With money scarce, many have questioned whether America really needs a whole new production line for manufacturing plutonium pits. To answer that it is necessary to examine how nuclear weapons are made……………….So much for the physics, now for the practicalities. Manufacturing plutonium pits is one of the most daunting tasks in engineering. Casting and machining plutonium is especially tricky. Not only is the metal highly toxic, but it also has many crystalline forms (allotropes). As it cools from the molten state, its various phase changes can cause components to distort and crack. Adding a small amount of gallium helps to stabilise the cooling, but it makes it harder to extract the plutonium from decommissioned weapons to turn it into fuel for nuclear reactors……….With the beryllium and plutonium production now located to Los Alamos, some 12,000 spare pits have been placed in storage at the Pantex plant. The question, then, is why build a new plutonium production line at Los Alamos? It is not as though the thousands of existing pits in storage are rotting away. An independent advisory panel found that pits in storage “have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years.”…….As it is, America has all the nuclear triggers it requires, and then some. Many would argue that the last thing it needs is a new production line for still more plutonium pits. The upgraded B61 gravity bomb—now being equipped with controllable tail fins that turn it into a precision guided weapon for the air force—will be part of the F-35 multi-role stealth fighter’s complement of armaments for decades to come. Meanwhile, the upgraded W76 warhead for the navy’s Trident- and Ohio-class missile submarines is expected to extend the weapon’s life from 20 to 60 years……..


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