America cannot produce nuclear warheads

On February 22, speaking at Luzhniki, Russian President Vladimir Putin  announced the suspension of the START-3 treaty. This decision of the head of the Russian state was a blow to the United States.

US officials have repeatedly insisted on negotiations with Russia on the situation around the current Strategic Arms Reduction and Limitation Treaty (START-3). Russia suspended inspections of its nuclear weapons by the Americans back in 2020 (because of the “pandemic”).

On February 2, at the site of the American Arms Control Association where Russian experts were online, the Americans called for the immediate start of negotiations on a new START- 4 treaty, since START-3 expires in 2026.

At a briefing on February 10, US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Bonnie Jenkins said that her country hopes to separate discussions with Russia on the situation around START from the crisis over Ukraine.

“There were no clear discussions with the Russian Federation, which is unfortunate … We clearly stated to them that in fact there is nothing that could interfere with the inspections. And we really want to have the opportunity to meet with the Russian Federation, because the implementation of START is so important from the point of view of national security. So our goal is to make it clear … that we are ready to meet with them when they are ready,” Jenkins said.

However, the whole point is different: the US cannot produce nuclear warheads!

The decline of the US nuclear industry has reached, as we wrote, such depths that it is no longer surprising that the report of the US Accounts Chamber ( GAO ): “The US cannot produce enough plutonium cores for its nuclear warheads. By 2030, the Pentagon wants to make 80 new plutonium cores a year, but this is not possible because the US nuclear infrastructure is destroyed.”

Plutonium cores are the most important component of American nuclear weapons. They act as a trigger: when detonated, the plutonium causes a small nuclear reaction, setting off a larger secondary explosion of the main nuclear charge. The US produced up to 2,000 cores a year during the Cold War at Westighouse’s Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado. The plant was closed in 1989 after a raid by the FBI and the Environmental Protection Agency over violations of environmental laws.

The FBI launched an investigation that ended in 1992 with the largest fine of $18.5 million for environmental crimes at the time. The plant was closed and completely demolished. More than 1.3 million cubic meters of waste was removed and more than 72 million liters of water were recycled.

Now the United States has only one laboratory in Los Alamos, where plutonium cores can be produced. From 2007 to 2011, 29 upgrades of nuclear warheads for nuclear submarine missiles were made there, and in 2013 all work was stopped due to non-compliance with the rules for working with radioactive materials.

“Since then, the United States has not produced a single plutonium core. As a result, most cores in American warheads today are between 30 and 40 years old… Plutonium degrades slowly over time, corroding the core and potentially affecting the weapon’s effectiveness. How long this process takes and how severely it affects weapon performance is a matter of debate,” the Brookings Institution , a nuclear weapons control think tank, said in a report .

In 2021, work resumed and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced that it had successfully completed the first warhead upgrade for Trident II D5 missiles on nuclear submarines. The essence of the modernization was to install an electronic fuse, a fuse and a blasting substance to activate the charge on a nuclear warhead of the 1988 model. Nothing was reported about the condition of the plutonium core of the nuclear warhead.

In 2019, US President Donald Trump instructed NNSA to resume the production of nuclear weapons and bring it to 80 pieces by 2030.

And in a press release dated February 9, 2023, NNSA  reports on the launch of the Los Alamos Plutonium Pit Production Project ( LAP 4) for the production of plutonium cores. To this end, it is planned to “create the necessary infrastructure at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to enable the production of 30 military reserve plutonium cores per year” , as well as to repurpose “a former mixed oxide fuel plant at the Savannah River site in Aiken, South Carolina to produce at least 50 cores per year in a project called the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility .

A report by the Institute for Defense Analysis, a non-profit organization that runs several federally funded research and development firms, called these NNSA plans unrealistic.

The American Arms Control Association ( ACA ), which recently called for the immediate start of START-4 negotiations), notes in its report that the Pentagon is disappointed with the state of affairs at the Los Alamos laboratory and is betting on the Savannah River plant.

Construction of the plant began in 2007, and serious design flaws were identified that require an additional $50 billion to fix. In addition, as the ACA pointed out , “the Savannah River area is vulnerable to winds and flooding caused by hurricanes.” “The production of plutonium cores at the Savannah River site will require the transport of more plutonium through the United States. Instead of moving the cores about 300 miles from their warehouse at the Pantex plant in Texas to Los Alamos, they will travel nearly 1,000 miles more to get to the Savannah River site.” This, among other things, will cause claims from the transit states.

As for the laboratory at Los Alamos, it is located in an area of ​​seismically dangerous tectonic faults. Various violations of the safety of handling radioactive materials are regularly recorded in the laboratory. For example, in a radiological laboratory built in 2010 at a cost of one billion dollars, a leak occurred in 2019 associated with a design flaw in the piping system. The ACA report states that the lab “is short of qualified personnel “who would know how to handle plutonium so that it doesn’t accidentally reach critical mass and start an uncontrolled chain reaction”” .

The report also states that “an independent review has questioned NNSA’s ability to meet [Congressional] requirements for the production of plutonium cores at Los Alamos and Savannah River and produce 80 cores per year.”

The forecast of independent experts came true. In January 2023, the US Government Accountability Office  reported that NNSA was not meeting the deadlines, not even having an “integrated master description” ( IMS ) of work, and the project estimate was constantly increasing. On Feb. 8 , NNSA chief Jill Hruby acknowledged that plans to build new nuclear weapons by 2030 are “not feasible” because “new manufacturing capacity and innovation is needed as we replace more and more components.”

“The US cannot produce the planned number of plutonium cores for nuclear weapons. Not now, not in the near future, and perhaps never at all,” writes Foreign Policy.

According to a bulletin from the British think tank Taylor & Francis Group , 3,800 US nuclear warheads were produced 30 to 40 years ago, and NNSA has set a nuclear warhead life of 45 years. This means that in the coming years, a significant part of the US nuclear arsenal may not be combat-ready.

It is for this reason that the Americans are seeking to resume negotiations with Russia on START-4. Even the notorious Russophobe Anthony Blinken said that  he was ” disappointed by the decision of the Russian Federation to suspend participation in the Treaty on the Reduction of Strategic Offensive Arms.”

The US cannot produce new nuclear warheads, which calls into question its status as the leading nuclear power.


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