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Old 02-28-2021, 10:42 AM
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Exclamation What if U.S. Military Nuclear Bombs and Missiles Stopped Working?

What if U.S. Military Nuclear Bombs and Missiles Stopped Working?
By: Steve Weintz - National Interest News - 02-28-21

No weapon is perfect and Washington is undertaking multiple life-extension programs.

Key point: What kind of weapons does America need to maintain its deterrence? This is a big question being debated as America tries to maintain its aging arsenal.

The U.S. Air Force is once again pushing for a nuclear-armed cruise missile to “fill the gap” between heavy bombers and ballistic missiles. The W-80 warhead will be the missile’s business end.

The flying branch’s push comes during the largest planned overhaul of America’s nuclear arsenal in decades. Aside from the many serious questions about necessity and cost, the question of reliability lingers.

That’s the enduring dilemma of nuclear weapons — few people really want them around, but no one wants to give them up while other nations have them. And will they work as designed?

Nuclear warheads are complex, highly-engineered devices with limited shelf lives. The National Nuclear Security Administration and America’s national laboratories rely on computer simulations and tests of non-nuclear components to assure the safety and reliability of the U.S. stockpile.

But simulations can’t tell you everything … like if a warhead doesn’t work when it freezes!

The Los Alamos National Lab began developing the W-80 thermonuclear warhead in 1976 for America’s new generation of cruise missiles.

About the size and shape of a fire hydrant minus its hose connections, the W-80 is a “dial-a-yield” device. Detonating its plutonium core alone yields five kilotons, while engaging its deuterium-tritium gas injector and the dry lithium fuel will ignite a fusion reaction and boost its yield to 150 kilotons.

Because nuclear yields don’t scale linearly, the W-80 is many, many times more powerful than the bombs that incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those bombs weighed tons. The W-80 weighs as much as an NFL linebacker.

The W-80 uses insensitive high explosive, or IHE, to compress its plutonium core and initiate a fission reaction. Earlier nuclear-weapon accidents demonstrated the need for high explosives less sensitive to fire and shock. But the IHE in the first production lot of W-80 warheads had a fatal flaw.

Air-launched weapons like cruise missiles must endure hours of sub-freezing temperatures at high altitudes while riding their carrier aircraft. Weaponeers successfully subjected the W-80’s components – including the IHE – to temperatures down to -65 Fahrenheit – during development.

But when actually tested in Shot Baseball during Operation Guardian in January 1981, the W-80 fizzled. The new nuke failed to ignite its fusion secondary and produced only a fraction of its intended yield. The IHE proved to be the culprit. It didn’t burn well at very low temperatures.

You have to go to war with the weapons you have, but that adage didn’t mean going to battle with dud weapons. The United States learned this lesson the hard way during World War II when its Mark 14 torpedoes failed repeatedly. Only a flag-rank investigation by a Navy laboratory involving numerous field tests fixed the problem.

With the W-80, only a live-fire underground test discovered the failure.

It took both Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore labs months to fix the W-80 by redesigning the fission primary and its high explosives. Again, they needed a full-up test to prove the redesign. A year after Shot Baseball, a second W-80 underground test — conducted at -65 degrees Fahrenheit and known as Shot Jornada – successfully proved the weapon.

Full production of the new model warheads began the following month. The United States would manufacture more than 2,100 W-80s between 1980 and 1990. Arms-control treaties and nuclear posture adjustments over the past 25 years have put a third of them in storage or out of commission.

America has conducted only one all-up test of a strategic nuclear missile system. During Operation Frigate Bird in May 1962 the submarine USS Ethan Allen fired a Polaris missile with a live W-47 warhead 1,100 miles across the mid-Pacific. A second sub recorded the 600-kiloton detonation through its periscope.

The last U.S. nuclear test – Shot Divider of Operation Julin – occurred in 1992. The preparations for the follow-up test Shot Icecap still stand in the Nevada desert, slowly rotting away. Like much of the U.S. nuclear-weapons industrial complex, it would need complete refurbishment before use.

In today’s climate, a unilateral resumption of U.S. nuclear tests could set off a surge of testing around the world. It would make the Iran nuclear deal even more controversial. After all, the existing nuclear weapons states have all legally pledged to get rid of their nukes … someday.

No hopeful person would want to conduct such tests, but relying on untested weapon systems – especially nuclear weapons systems — seems a chancy way to go about deterrence. But there’s the rub — deterrence requires that one’s opponents believe that your nuclear weapons will work as advertised.


Question? Do nuclear weapons have a shelf life? How do we know they will even work if none have been tested over so many years?

Here's what found posted: Originally Answered:
Do nuclear weapons have an expiry date? Yes, they have. They have to use highly concentrated uranium or plutonium and these materials deteriorate quite fast. So they are built with higher concentrated and more nuclear fuel than necessary, but this lasts only so long.
Here's a reply posted on Quora dated 12-04-19 (seems this question was brought up)
By: Carey Sublette - 12-04-19

Reply: The service life, as it is called, of a weapon is a major concern and billions of dollars are spent annually by the U.S. to ensure that nuclear weapons do not deteriorate and remain functional.

If a weapon depends on tritium in any way to function normally, it will cease to do so on the time scale of no more than a couple of decades due the decay of tritium with a half-life of 12.3 years. Neutron generators used to trigger the initial fission explosion are an item that uses tritium; and if the weapon uses gas boosting (as do all U.S. weapons) then that is required for full yield. Tritium is costly so they do not load a large excess into the weapon, but instead change out the components regularly. If gas boosting fails the yield of the weapon, regardless of design yield, will drop to 300 tons; if the neutron generator fails the nuclear yield would be quite small, if any (some fission would still occur initiated by the spontaneous fission neutrons present, but in a modern weapon there are not enough elapsed generation periods available to allow them to multiply to a significant yield).

With U.S. servicing practices if tritium is not replenished the weapon will cease to function in less than 10 years time. The U.S. has recently decided to increase its tritium production and maintain a larger inventory to extend the time between servicing required,

One limitation with simply increasing the tritium reservoir in each weapon is that tritium decays into helium-3, a potent neutron absorber. Unless the weapon pit is designed with sufficient excess reactivity this may cause the fission reaction to fail.

Other components deteriorate on a longer time scale.

Plutonium is a very complex active and reactive material. It decays by alpha emission to uranium, disrupting the metal crystal lattice and inserting helium atoms in it; it spontaneously fissions which is so energetic that dramatic local disruption occurs; it reacts vigorously with most any contaminant it encounters, air leakage into the weapon, gases or liquids emitted by other deteriorating components. Plutonium pits in U.S. weapons are projected to be reliable for 90 years, but may deteriorate over the course of centuries, or quite quickly if weapon seals are breached and the pit itself is not encapsulated in a gas-tight shell (most or all U.S. weapons do have such a shell)..

Explosives are subjected to neutron irradiation and may undergo chemical deterioration from the chemically active species produced, perhaps eventually autocatalytic deterioration that would quickly ruin the charge once initiated. This is quite unlikely though - high explosives have been tested at radiation levels exceeding one million rads without significant effect.

And of course there are batteries required to operate the warhead. Nuclear weapons do use a type of essentially unlimited life battery called a thermal battery. This is a battery that uses solid reactants and/or electrolytes and are chemically and electrically inert at normal temperatures and so is safe from deterioration. Some type of heater (usually pyrotechnic) must heat the battery to start its operation and that in turn requires some sort of always active starter battery though it could be external to the warhead (strictly speaking the pyrotechnic heater could in principle be initiated mechanically - but it is unlikely they do this).

It is of course possible to engineer a warhead for long storage life, but during the arms race this was never a consideration. Now that warhead manufacture and testing has ended in the U.S. the military, and the civilians maintaining the arsenal, are regretting that fact.

A long life optimized design would eliminate tritium, using deuterium-only neutron generators, eliminate gas boosting (or use the less effective deuterium only boosting), use HEU instead of plutonium, explosives chose for stability, and component packaging and arrangement to provide secure seals and avoid complex interactions. The benefits of tritium gas boosting are so great that this would probably be retained in any redesigned long-life weapon, simply accepting the servicing and tritium production requirements.


Conclusion: YES - nothing lives for ever - except the nuclear waste on the ground zero and the atmospheric movements contaminating a large portion of the lands if not the entire world. Sick isn't it - the cost to make them for self-defense - and if used will kill more than just the enemy! Hmmm! Nukes as evil as they are there is still something very wrong with having these weapons?

O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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