Posted on Sat, Feb. 26, 2011 10:15 PM
U.S. trims its nuclear arsenal while upgrading production
By DONALD BRADLEY
The construction site of the new billion-dollar Honeywell plant in
south Kansas City is quite the head-turner.
Workers everywhere, trucks scurrying about like mice, monster earth
movers, cranes reaching to the sky and enough trailers to start a
retirement community. All on 185 acres inside a perimeter fence and
under a wind-whipped Old Glory.
But drive past the former bean field on Missouri 150 enough times and
the thought occurs: Kansas City produces parts for every nuclear
weapon now in our arsenal. The country is making more nuclear bombs,
has been building them virtually non-stop for 65 years, hasn’t used
one against an enemy since 1945, and a significant new arms reduction
treaty went into effect just this month.
Nine thousand warheads, about a quarter capable of being triggered
tomorrow, is a lot of product sitting around.
Any is too many, critics said. “Modernization” is a joke, just more of
the world-threatening, same-old, same-old madness.
Others counter that the world cannot “disinvent” the bomb. What the
country needs, they said, is to scrap the big nukes in the stockpile —
hardly a deterrent — for smaller, tactical ones that potential enemies
think we would actually use.
The $85 billion upgrade of our bomb-making infrastructure in Kansas
City with Honeywell and at other locations is occurring 50 years after
President Dwight Eisenhower warned in his farewell address of the
military-industrial complex and its “potential for the disastrous rise
of misplaced power.”
It’s also taking place two years after President Barack Obama told the
world in a speech in Prague, Czech Republic, that the United States
was committed to ridding itself of nuclear weapons.
“Today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to
seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” he
said to the cheers of 20,000 people.
He had the backing of the so-called “Gang of Four” — former
secretaries of state George Shultz, William Perry and Henry Kissinger
and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, all foreign policy heavyweights — who
called in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2007 for worldwide nuclear
Then late last year, Obama won Senate approval of the New START
(Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). Under it, strategic nuclear missile
launchers will be cut in half in seven years. More than 100 missile
silos, bomber wings and submarine launch tubes will be taken off-line.
America’s immediately usable warheads will be halved to 1,550, with
the option of possibly jamming a few hundred more onto bombers.
So what happened? How did the administration get from Prague to that
soybean field in south Kansas City, where ever more non-nuclear
warhead components — the electronics, arming, fusing, firing packages
— will be churned out?
The answer, said experts, even those opposed to nuclear weapons, is
that no matter how many START treaties are ratified, complete
disarmament is unlikely to ever happen because the knowledge and
technology are in the open.
The realistic and responsible course now is to maintain a safe,
reliable deterrent to nuclear attack, they said.
get New START approved, so he agreed to continue the expensive
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, in explaining his
vote on the Senate floor in December made no effort to make the deal
sound anything but quid pro quo:
“I will vote to ratify the New START treaty with Russia because it
leaves our country with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker
to kingdom come and because the president has committed to an $85
billion, 10-year plan to make sure that those weapons work.”
A major protest by Midwest Catholic Worker groups is scheduled for May
2 at the new Honeywell site. Frank Cordaro, a Des Moines anti-nuke
protester who has been arrested at the construction site, agrees a
deal was made.
“Obama needed the war mongrels to go along,” Cordaro said. “It was
easy to flim flam Americans because the public is so militarized, so
caught up in being an empire.”
But James Carafano, a defense expert for the Heritage Foundation, said
talk of a nuclear-free world was fantasy.
“Disarmament is like cops giving up their guns,” he said.
Noting that a nuclear blast over a major American city would kill
thousands and cost trillions, he said, “The consequences of getting it
wrong are too great.
“If you ask people if they want nuclear weapons to be safe and
reliable, they’re going to say yes. Old ones that may or may not work
are not a credible deterrent.”
Experts agree that Obama’s Prague speech was more global posturing
than realistic policy goal and that our nation is unlikely ever to
fold its top hand in the high stakes game of nuclear deterrent.
Uncertain shelf life
Since August 1945, when “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” ushered in the
nuclear age, the United States and the Soviet Union have spent
billions of dollars building and stockpiling nuclear weapons.
The U.S. arsenal peaked with about 30,000 warheads in the 1960s; the
Soviets topped out at about 40,000 in the 1980s.
bad ... maybe … we think. Since nuclear testing has been banned since
1991, it’s hard to know for sure.
The uncertainty has kept plants like Kansas City’s busy. The military
didn’t want to risk “duds,” so bombs routinely were refit with new
“We used to think parts wore out after 20 years or so,” said Steven
Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. “So we were
constantly dismantling and putting on new parts.”
Having even less confidence in their bombs, the Soviets assumed a
10-year shelf life.
Now, most experts think the U.S. components actually could be good for
a hundred years.
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 didn’t change much, although
Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine decided against being nuclear powers
and turned their warheads over to Moscow.
Still, the nuclear club has grown, from the United States, Russia,
France, Britain and China originally, then India, Pakistan, Israel
and, most worrisome, North Korea.
Iran reportedly is enriching uranium but is believed to be some years
from its first warhead.
Owen Cote at Massachusetts Institute of Technology said it may be good
politics to talk disarmament but the worry was that some weapons
states could agree to dismantle but then keep those parts close to
“We can’t create conditions to get to zero,” Cote said.
“Those other countries are no threats to us,” he said. “They are only
aping us. They would stop if we would.”
Although anti-missile systems are being debated and deployed against
some nations, many believe the first nuclear attack on U.S. soil is
more likely from an enemy undeterred by what sits in our silos or
The biggest worry is that a terrorist group, such as al-Qaida, could
lay hands on a black market nuke or create a radiation-spewing “dirty
bomb.” Even in that case, it would be hard to find a target at which
to fire nuclear weapons in response.
Terrorism is a poor man’s war, Cordaro noted. War is a rich man’s terrorism.
The modernizing effort
On Feb. 18, 1943, with the outcome of World War II unsettled, ground
was broken in Bear Creek Valley in rural Tennessee for a factory to
enrich plutonium. A month later, J. Robert Oppenheimer arrived in New
Mexico to discover that Los Alamos housing for his bomb designers
wasn’t ready, but the Army had arranged stays at dude ranches.
Sixty-five years later, those two facilities today remain vital to
America’s nuclear weapons infrastructure.
The Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge will get $6 billion in
improvements and expansion as part of the modernization. The plant,
which employs about 6,000 workers, makes the “secondary” for bombs —
the part that makes them thermonuclear.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory, with 11,700 employees, is home to
the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility, which is
key to creating new plutonium pits, the “primary” components of
warheads. New facilities there will cost about $5 billion.
The rest of the modernization funding will go over time for smaller
facilities, clean-ups and for the new or refurbished weapons
From 2000 to 2010, the Kansas City plant shipped nearly 1,000 MSAD
(mechanical safe arming detonator) kits, a safety component that
prevents accidental or unintended detonation of a nuclear warhead.
According to the National Nuclear Security Administration, in recent
years the plant, built during World War II to make engines for Navy
fighter planes, has evolved into “science-based manufacturing.”
Now the facility is under fire by current and former employees,
environmentalists and residents about issues of massive pollution and
illnesses that remain unresolved. A cleanup could cost hundreds of
millions of dollars.
Here’s a quirk about the new plant:
“Kansas City will be the only city in world that owns a weapons plant
— let alone a nuclear weapons plant,” said Chris Paine of the Natural
Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group.
“There is absolutely no reason to build this plant. This place will
have ponds and bike paths, a suburban monument to nuclear weapons.”
Jay Coghlan of Nukewatch said the Clinton administration considered
closing the Kansas City plant.
“This terrified Kansas City politicians, even though it made no sense
to build the new plant. They wanted to keep those jobs.”
According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, formed by
Manhattan Project veterans who started the Doomsday Clock, more than
9,000 warheads are stored at 18 locations in 12 states and six
the rest awaiting dismantlement.
The biggest concentration of the operational nukes is at the Strategic
Weapons Facility Pacific at Bangor, Wash., which sends out Ohio-class
submarines operating in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
the B-2A Spirits clustered at Whiteman Air Force Base east of Kansas
American West; the remainder at eight military bases spread through
Europe. The United States is the only country that deploys nuclear
weapons in other countries.
That means the push for more sophisticated weapons and delivery
systems will continue because, as if in response to the famous Rodney
King question, no, countries of the world cannot all get along.
But then doesn’t that mean that this country will forever be building
Not forever, Carafano said.
“Some day the sun’s going to burn out.”
How many nukes?
The exact number of nuclear weapons is not known, as each country
guards the number closely. The Federation of American Scientists
estimates that the global nuclear inventory is approximately 22,400.
Most are in possession by the United States or Russia.
12,000 Nukes in Russia’s arsenal
9,400 Nukes in the United States’ arsenal
To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send e-mail to
firstname.lastname@example.org. Source: Federation of American Scientists