Tag Archives: United States nuclear weapons complex

Cleaning Up the US Nuclear Weapons Complex

A report from the National Academies of Sciences published in March 2019 recommends changes in the way that the U.S. Department of Energy manages science and technology (S&T) development in order to accelerate the cleanup of radioactive waste and contaminated soil, groundwater, and facilities at U.S. nuclear weapons sites.

A portion of DOE’s technology development should focus on breakthrough solutions and technologies that can substantially reduce schedules, risks, and uncertainties in the cleanup, says Independent Assessment of Science and Technology for the Department of Energy’s Defense Environmental Cleanup Program. This effort should be managed by ARPA-E, a DOE division that has a record of investing in innovative solutions for complex technical challenges; it would require substantial new funding…DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (DOE-EM) is responsible for cleaning up 107 sites in 31 states and one territory that were used for nuclear weapons development, testing, and related activities during the Manhattan Project and Cold War. The cleanup program began in 1989 and has, over the past three decades, cleaned up 91 sites at a cost of about $170 billion. DOE-EM projects that it will spend at least another 50 years and $377 billion to complete its cleanup of the 16 remaining sites.

The new report says that these time and cost estimates are highly uncertain – and probably low – because of significant remaining technical challenges and uncertainties, and also because additional sites and facilities may be added to the cleanup program in the future. ..Currently, DOE-EM’s management of S&T development is ad hoc and uncoordinated, the report says. Most DOE-EM-related S&T development activities are focused on individual sites, are driven and managed by contractors, and have a short-term emphasis on addressing technical challenges in existing cleanup projects…The successful cleanup of the large, complex Rocky Flats site near Denver showed that technology development and deployment can have major impacts in accelerating schedules and reducing costs, the report notes. The remaining cleanup sites – which include large, complex sites such as Hanford in Washington state, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee – provide an opportunity for S&T to have similar impacts.

The report identifies seven examples of technologies and alternative approaches that could substantially reduce costs and speed cleanup schedules – these include changes in waste chemistry and nuclear properties to facilitate treatment and disposal, and changes in human involvement in cleanup activities to increase efficiencies and reduce worker risks. 

Excerpts from Breakthrough Solutions and Technologies Needed to Speed Cleanup of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Sites, National Academies Press Release, Mar. 4, 2019

US Nuclear Revitalization

As North Korea dug tunnels at its nuclear test site last fall, watched by American spy satellites, the Obama administration was preparing a test of its own in the Nevada desert.

A fighter jet took off with a mock version of the nation’s first precision-guided atom bomb. Adapted from an older weapon, it was designed with problems like North Korea in mind: Its computer brain and four maneuverable fins let it zero in on deeply buried targets like testing tunnels and weapon sites. And its yield, the bomb’s explosive force, can be dialed up or down depending on the target, to minimize collateral damage.

Mr. Obama has long advocated a “nuclear-free world.” His lieutenants argue that modernizing existing weapons can produce a smaller and more reliable arsenal while making their use less likely because of the threat they can pose. The changes, they say, are improvements rather than wholesale redesigns, fulfilling the president’s pledge to make no new nuclear arms.

But critics, including a number of former Obama administration officials, look at the same set of facts and see a very different future. The explosive innards of the revitalized weapons may not be entirely new, they argue, but the smaller yields and better targeting can make the arms more tempting to use — even to use first, rather than in retaliation.

The United States military is replacing the fixed tail section of the B61 bomb with steerable fins and adding other advanced technology. The result is a bomb that can make more accurate nuclear strikes and a warhead whose destructive power can be adjusted to minimize collateral damage and radioactive fallout…

The B61 Model 12, the bomb flight-tested last year in Nevada, is the first of five new warhead types planned as part of an atomic revitalization estimated to cost up to $1 trillion over three decades. As a family, the weapons and their delivery systems move toward the small, the stealthy and the precise.  Already there are hints of a new arms race. Russia called the B61 tests “irresponsible” and “openly provocative.” China is said to be especially worried about plans for a nuclear-tipped cruise missile….The advanced cruise missile are estimated to cost up to $30 billion for roughly 1,000 weapons….Because the missile comes in nuclear and non-nuclear varieties, a foe under attack might assume the worst and overreact, initiating nuclear war.

Excerpt from WILLIAM J. BROAD and DAVID E. SANGERJAN, As U.S. Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, ‘Smaller’ Leaves Some Uneasy, NY Times, Jan. 11, 2016

see also Nuclear Weapons, Justice and the Law

The Y-12: Nuclear Weapons Alive and Well

Nearly three weeks after a stunning security breach shut down the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, the government on Wednesday (Aug. 15, 2012) authorized the restart of nuclear operations…..B&W Y-12, the managing contractor, ordered a “security stand-down” on Aug. 1, 2012 soon after the unprecedented intrusion July 28 by three Plowshares protesters, who reportedly scaled a ridge on the north side of Y-12 and walked all the way to the plant’s high-security inner core. The protesters …. used bolt-cutters to pass through a series of sensor-laden security fences and reach the fortresslike uranium storehouse, which they defaced with spray-painted protest messages and human blood. The breach raised deep questions about site vulnerabilities and prompted multiple investigations, which are still under way.The approval to restart nuclear operations has no bearing on the “show cause” notice that the National Nuclear Security Administration sent to B&W Y-12 last week, Wyatt said.

In the Aug. 10, 2015 letter to the contractor, the NNSA said security concerns raised by the break-in and the response to it were so severe as to potentially harm the ability to carry out the Y-12 contract. ….It wasn’t clear how long it would take Y-12 to get the uranium operations and other activities, including the dismantlement of old warhead parts, up and running or restart manufacturing programs.  In its “show cause” letter to B&W, the NNSA said a “high number” of cameras associated with the plant’s PIDAS (Perimeter Intrusion Detection and Assessment System) were inoperable at the time of the July 28, 2012intrusion in the predawn hours. ”

Excepts from   Frank Munge, Feds authorize restart of Y-12’s nuke operations,
Knoxville News Sentinel, Aug. 15, 2012