This undated handout photo provided by the National Nuclear Security Administration shows the
' last B53 nuclear bomb. It was dismantled Tuesday at a plant outside United States . Amarillo, Texas
The Energy Department has quietly dismantled the last of its enormous B-53 nuclear bombs. Workers at a nuclear management plant just north of
, separated some 300 pounds of high explosive from the uranium that surrounds it inside the bomb. Amarillo, Texas
It's a complex procedure. On Tuesday, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told NPR's All Things Considered that working on the B-53 was like doing surgery on a small sedan:
KRISTENSEN: Well, it's like taking a car apart except you do it much more carefully. The, you know, nuts and bolts, the glue - you name it. I mean, it's just peeling apart layer by layer...Also, how to handle it because you don't want to drop some of this stuff...And so, they take these weapons apart in these weapons bays, as they call them, that are underground hardened concrete-steel structures that can contain a blast if these high explosives go off.
He adds these bombs were so 'humongous' that they weren't known as bunker-busters - they were city-busters. The B-53 was so big a jet could only carry two bombs at a time, and their capacity for destruction was staggering. Wired Magazinecalculates the atom bomb that destroyed the city of
during World War Two was 12 kilotons. A single B-53 had 9,000 kilotons. Wired estimates the Hiroshima once had more than 300 of them. U.S.
Kristensen wrote more than a year ago about the safety issues of the B-53, and notes the
now relies on a newer, smaller bomb in its nuclear arsenal. U.S.
Last Nuclear ‘Monster Weapon’ Gets Dismantled
· By Spencer Ackerman
· October 24, 2011 |
· 6:30 am |
· Categories: Nukes
In the 1960s, the skies above the
were patrolled by agents of the apocalypse. Air Force B-52 Stratofortresses circled the North American continent, 24 hours a day, cradling two megabombs in their bellies. Those B-53 bombs each weighed 10,000 pounds. Were one to drop on the White House, a nine-megaton yield would destroy all life out into suburban United States Maryland and . Virginia
It was the ultimate Cold War weapon, the one that Major Kong would have ridden into Armageddon at the end of Dr. Strangelove. And on Tuesday, it will no longer exist.
Out at the Energy Department’s Pantex Plant near
Amarillo, Texas, the last of ’s B-53s is in storage. Come Tuesday, it will be dissected: The 300 pounds of high explosives will be separated from its enriched uranium heart, known as a “pit.” The pit will be placed into a storage locker at Pantex, where it will await a final, highly supervised termination. America
“It’s the end of the era of monster weapons, if you will,” says Hans Kristensen, who directs the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of the American Scientists.
First brought into the
nuclear stockpile in 1962, the B-53 was so big because it was so dumb. With poor precision mechanisms for finding a target — “Its accuracy was horrendous,” Kristensen says — what it lacked in smarts it made up in strength. The nukes that vaporized U.S. were a mere 12 kilotons; the B53 provided nine megatons — 9,000 kilotons — of destructive power. Hiroshima
And it was designed to burrow deep. The B53 wasn’t just any old megabomb. It was the first bunker buster.
nuclear doctrine called for it to be delivered over suspected underground Soviet command-and-control facilities. The dumb bomb wouldn’t destroy them so much as it would destroy everything remotely near it, leaving — literally — a smoldering crater. That was the U.S. plan for “victory” in a nuclear war right up until the implosion of the Soviet Empire. U.S.
At its height, the
had 400 of the mega-gravity bombs. But it was decommissioned in 1997, so it’s not as if the U.S. suddenly finds itself without its massive gravity bomb. It’s been a slow process of destruction ever since, although Pantex spokesman Greg Cunningham says that he can’t say how long it takes to destroy one of the bombs. U.S.
America’s nuclear arsenal remains enormous; the will still have 1,500 atomic weapons, by the time the latest U.S.-Russia nuke treaty runs its course. But with the end of the B-53 comes a belated end to a Cold War relic. U.S.
“It was one heck of a whopper,” Kristensen says. “We have nothing that comes close to it in the stockpile anymore, and neither does
. It’s the end of an era.” Russia
Photo: National Nuclear Security Administration
Nuke 'Em From On High
A B-2 Spirit Bomber from Whiteman Air Force Base,
, drops a B61-11 Mo.
"bunker busting" nuclear bomb casing.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks on the
and Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was questioned on ABC television's This Week program about the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons in the expected conflicts to come. World Trade Center
In practiced Pentagonese, Rumsfeld deftly avoided answering the question of whether the use of tactical nuclear weapons could be ruled out.
Though large "theater" thermonuclear devices -- doomsday bombs -- don't fit the Bush administration's war on terrorism, smaller tactical nukes do not seem out of the question in the current mindset of the Defense Department.
The B61-11 was designed to destroy underground military facilities such as command bunkers, ballistic missile silos and facilities for producing and storing weapons.
However, it could be used against the warren of tunnels and caves carved under the Afghan mountains that are often cited as a potential refuge for the
government's prime suspect, Osama bin Laden. U.S.
According to an article in the May 1997 edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: "The B61-11's unique earth-penetrating characteristics and wide range of yields allow it to threaten otherwise indestructible targets from the air.
"The 1,200-pound B61-11 replaces the B53, a 8,900-pound, nine-megaton bomb that was developed as a 'city buster'..."
The B53 was deliverable only by vulnerable B-52s; In contrast, the smaller and lighter B61-11 can be delivered by the stealthier B-2A bomber, or even by F-16 fighters.
The B61-11 is the most recent device added to the
nuclear arsenal since 1989, according to the story. U.S.
It was developed and deployed secretly. The
military sneaked it past test and development treaties, as well as public and congressional debate, by defining the B61-11 as an adaptation of a pre-treaty technology rather than a new development. U.S.
The B61-11 is designed to burrow through layers of concrete by way of a "shock-coupling effect."
The design directs the force of the B61-11's explosive energy downward, destroying everything buried beneath it to a depth of several hundred meters, according to a story in the March 2, 1997 issue of Defense News.
The B53, on the other hand, with a force equal to 9 million tons of TNT, penetrates the earth simply by creating a massive crater, rather than the more precise downward blow of the B61-11.
Depending on the yield of the bomb, the B61-11 can produce explosions ranging from 300 tons of TNT to more than 300,000 tons. This is significantly less than the B53, but still far larger than even the greatest conventional non-nuclear device in
stockpiles. And it is several times more powerful than the atomic weapons dropped on U.S. in 1945. Japan
Studies by the Natural Resource Defense Council estimate that more than 150 B61-11s are currently in the U.S. arsenals, scattered among NATO aircraft carriers and planes on bases in Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Turkey, Belgium, Netherlands and Greece.
Many B61-11s were withdrawn from Europe during the '90s and are now stored at Kirtland and Nellis Air Force bases in the
. United States
According to a desk release from the Air Force's public affairs office, tests of the earth-penetrating capabilities of the B61-11 were completed on March 17, 1998, in frozen tundra at the Stuart Creek Impact Area, 35 miles southeast of
. Fairbanks, Alaska
Two unarmed B61-11s were dropped to test their ground-penetration capability. The tests were designed to measure the nuclear bomb casing's penetration into frozen soil and the survivability of the weapon's internal components.
A team excavated the two unexploded dummy bombs and took careful measurements of their angles and depth of penetration into the soil, which were 6 and 10 feet, according to the Air Force. The shells were sent back to Sandia National Laboratories in
for full analysis of how the simulated internal components fared in the impact. New Mexico
The B6-11's casing didn't rupture in any of the tests, including drops through concrete from 40,000 feet. All bomb casings were recovered 100 percent intact, according to the release.
Any debate inside the corridors of power about using tactical nukes will be heightened by the intelligence buzz surrounding bin Laden's possible ownership of Russian nuclear "suitcase" bombs purchased from Chechen mafia.
Those weapons are said to be hidden in deep caves and fortified tunnels in remote regions of
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the discussion of ways to eradicate this potential nuclear threat -– while simultaneously destroying bin Laden and his teams -— may have led to talk about tactical weapons that can destroy even heavily fortified underground shelters.
October 25, 2011
The last B53 bomb is supposed to be dismantled Tuesday. Michele Norris speaks with Hans Kristensen from the Federation of American Scientists about the historical climate surrounding the B53 bomb.
MICHELE NORRIS, host: The United States is taking one of its nuclear options off the table today. The B-53 is a 10,000-pound relic of the Cold War days. A bomb so big it could have obliterated a big city in a single blow. Well, now near
, the last B-53 is being dismantled. Amarillo, Texas
And Hans Kristensen joins us now to talk about that. He directs the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. So glad you came into the studio.
HANS KRISTENSEN: Thanks for having me.
NORRIS: Can you tell us a little bit more about the B-53, how did it compare to other weapons? And how was it intended to be used?
KRISTENSEN: It was a city buster, literally. In its first incarnation, it was a warhead on the tip of a long-range ballistic missile called the Titan. And it was designed to blow-up cities. And a later version was converted into a gravity bomb, which is the one that we now see being taken apart. That was built for the B-52 long-range bomber.
And, of course, over the years the mission changed that delivery vehicles became more accurate. And so, instead of being a city-busting weapon, it turned into a bunker-busting weapon, where it was designed to literally dig up underground command and control facilities in the Soviet Union, later
NORRIS: So, facilities perhaps in the side of mountains and things like that.
KRISTENSEN: Correct. They can be under a, you know, great big granite formation to protect better or they can just be very deep in general.
NORRIS: What does this thing look like?
KRISTENSEN: Well, it's a size of a little car. I've been standing right next to one of them and it's humongous. And it's so big that the large B-52 bomber could only carry two of them in its belly. I mean, one in each bomb bay, and it was full.
NORRIS: How do you dismantle a monster bomb like this?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KRISTENSEN: Well, it's like taking a car apart except you do it much more carefully. The, you know, nuts and bolts, the glue - you name it. I mean, it's just peeling apart layer by layer. And there are very strict manuals on exactly what you have to do, how much pressure can you apply to each screw, what kind of glue holds the chemical high explosives together around the spear of uranium - highly enriched uranium, in this case. Also, how to handle it because you don't want to drop some of this stuff.
The high explosives are not what we have in the most modern weapons that are called insensitive high explosives. These are sort of conventional high explosives. And if you drop them they can explode. And so, they take these weapons apart in these weapons bays, as they call them, that are underground hardened concrete-steel structures that can contain a blast if these high explosives go off.
NORRIS: This is part of a global effort to step away from the Cold War and the machinery of the Cold War. In your estimation, how much progress has been made in that effort? How much is yet to be done, not just here but around the world?
KRISTENSEN: Well, as everything, it depends on when you compare it to. Because, I mean, we had arsenals on our side at a peak somewhere around 32,000 weapons in our stockpile. Today, we're down to 5,000. On the Soviet side, they had at their peak some 45,000 weapons in their stockpile. And they're now down to perhaps eight. So, a big job has been done.
But, as you can imagine, five and 8,000 weapons is still an enormous amount of overcapacity for the kind of world we live in today. These large arsenals, they were built, you have to remember, to battle, to fight nuclear wars - large arsenals against large arsenals. So, now we're struggling with how to drawdown these big arsenals and make them more applicable to the kind of world we live in today.
NORRIS: I've been speaking with Hans Kristensen about the dismantling of the last B-53 bomb. He's the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Thanks so much for coming in.
KRISTENSEN: Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MELISSA BLOCK, host: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.
Media Contact: Greg Cunningham Oct. 24, 2011
Last B53 Nuclear Bomb Dismantled at Pantex
Challenging program finished well ahead of schedule B&W Pantex this month will complete the dismantlement of the final B53 nuclear bomb – an enduring Cold War symbol and one of the longest lived and highest yield nuclear weapons ever fielded by the
The B53 was first put into service in 1962, a year when Cold War tensions were at their highest during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It served a critical role in the nation‟s nuclear deterrence through the end of the Cold War, retiring from the stockpile in 1997. The final B53 will be dismantled this month at the Pantex Plant near
, the nation‟s only facility for building, disassembling and maintaining nuclear weapons. Amarillo, Texas
“The world is a safer place with this dismantlement,” said Thomas D‟Agostino, Under Secretary of Energy for Nuclear Security and Administrator, National Nuclear Security Administration. “The B53 was a weapon developed in another time for a different world. Today, we‟re moving beyond the Cold War nuclear weapons complex that built it toward a 21st -century Nuclear Security Enterprise.
“President Obama has said he wants to „reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same,‟ and the elimination of the B53 is a significant step in implementing his nuclear security agenda.”
Called “The Last of the Big Dogs” by disassembly workers, the megaton-class B53 weighed around 10,000 pounds and was about the size of a minivan. It was built at the now-closed plant in
, and was designed to be air dropped from a B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber. The weapon contained about 300 pounds of high explosive surrounding a uranium pit. Burlington, Iowa
At the time it was retired, the B53 was the oldest, the largest and the most destructive weapon in the
nuclear arsenal. U.S.
Many B53s were disassembled in the 1980s, but a significant number remained in the
arsenal until they were retired in 1997. With the help of Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, where the weapon was designed, Pantex studied and designed a fully compliant way to dismantle the aging B53 using the NNSA‟s Seamless Safety for the 21st Century (SS-21) program. P.O. Box 30020, U.S. Amarillo, 79120-0020 www.pantex.com Texas
“This is a proud day for everyone at Pantex and throughout the nuclear weapons complex,” said Pantex Site Office Manager Steve Erhart. “Completing such a difficult project safely, securely and months ahead of schedule is a real testament to the professionalism and dedication of the men and women who work at Pantex.
“The B53 was a cornerstone of the
nuclear defense for 35 years. Its final dismantlement is a significant event for this country and for the world.” Beyond the difficulties presented by its massive size, the B53 disassembly was complicated by its use of older technology developed by engineers that have long since retired or passed away. The dismantlement required the creation of many complex pieces of tooling, as well as development of new procedures, to allow for the safe disassembly of the B53. U.S.
“I could not be more proud of the technicians, engineers and scientists who worked on this program,” said B&W Pantex General Manager John Woolery. “We knew going in that this was going to be a challenging project, and we put together an outstanding team with all of our partners to develop a way to achieve this objective safely and efficiently.”
The final step in the dismantlement will take place in conjunction with a ceremony at the plant on October 25. Dignitaries from the Department of Energy and NNSA will be on hand for the final steps in the dismantlement. A weapon is considered dismantled when the high explosive is separated from the special nuclear material, or pit.
Once that step is taken, the B53 will be removed from the nuclear stockpile forever. Media is welcome to attend the event, but must arrive at the plant prior to 1 p.m. Oct. 25. Please contact Greg Cunningham as soon as possible if you plan to attend so arrangements can be made for access to secure areas of the plant. A minimum of 24 hours advanced notice is required. The event will include unique access to normally inaccessible areas of the plant, as well as excellent video opportunities and interviews with high level officials.
B&W Pantex manages and operates the Pantex Plant near
, for the U.S. Department of Energy‟s National Nuclear Security Administration. B&W Pantex is also the proud recipient of the DOE‟s Voluntary Protection Program STAR status for safety excellence. The company was also named one of America‟s safest companies by Occupational Hazards magazine and has received numerous awards from the National Safety Council. Amarillo, Texas