Here is an article I wrote for Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action's April 2009 newsletter, Volume 14, Issue 2. Check out the entire April newsletter by clicking here.
Out of the Fog (Bank): How the Pentagon Temporarily Forgot How to Make Trident Warheads
Over the past year, we’ve heard about nuclear tipped Cruise missiles mistakenly loaded and flown across the U.S. on a B52 bomber, nuclear missile fuses mistakenly shipped to Taiwan (they thought they were sending helicopter batteries, and found out their error 18 months later), 80 computers unaccounted for at Los Alamos National Laboratory (13 stolen and 6 missing). Where will it all end?Now we have a new bit of news - plans gone missing! Have you ever forgotten where something was, and no matter how much you looked or thought about it, you just couldn't figure out where you had left it? Or perhaps when you were in college you scribbled down lots of notes in a really important class, and then tried to refer to them to write a term paper and couldn’t figure out what any of it meant? Well, something like one (or both) of these scenarios played out at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). According to a U.S. Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) report, the NNSA "lost knowledge" of how to manufacture a rather obscure and "very hazardous material, codenamed Fogbank" (1).
It would seem that the NNSA was in the fog about the plans (or formula) for Fogbank, and this set the "joint American-British plans to upgrade the Trident nuclear weapons" back by a year and cost taxpayers an additional $69 million. What is really amazing is that (according to the GAO report) the NNSA "kept few records of the process when the material was made in the 1980s", and most of the people involved are now gone. So much for scientific method or good recordkeeping, eh? Perhaps an obsessive concern over information security got the better of them. (Remember the government’s spy obsession that culminated in the prosecution – or was it persecution - of Wen Ho Lee in the late 1990s?)
Back to Fogbank in a moment. For now, consider that the U.S. government has a program, the W76 Life Extension Program, to refurbish certain nuclear weapons, including the W76 warhead that tops off many of the Trident nuclear missiles. The refurbishing process is not unlike that which is used to refurbish a used computer or household appliance, except that is a nuclear weapon with a 100 kiloton yield. Replacement parts are designed at one of the nation’s three nuclear weapons design laboratories. Warheads are shipped to one of the production plants where they are disassembled, upgraded with new nuclear and non-nuclear parts, and re-assembled. Refurbished warheads are shipped (in the case of the W76) to the Navy, ready for deployment.
No one (outside of anyone with a really, really high security clearance) probably knows exactly what Fogbank is, but there is some pretty sound speculation out there. Modern nuclear weapons are much more sophisticated, and much smaller, than the aptly named “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Weapons designers have done their best to design warheads that are light in weight, relatively small (to fit as many as possible onto a missile), and pack a major wallop when detonated.
A modern thermonuclear warhead is composed of essentially two separate bombs, a primary and a secondary. The primary, a fission bomb, has a core (or “pit” of plutonium 239 surrounded by explosives, which, when detonated, compress the plutonium, causing a fission explosion (that is boosted by Tritium). Massive amounts of x-rays generated by the primary fission explosion compress and heat the secondary (a fusion device) composed of Uranium 235 and Lithium Deuteride (the fusion fuel), causing both fission and fusion reactions. The proverbial icing on the cake is the layer of enriched uranium surrounding the secondary, causing a third blast.
Of course, you can’t just throw a primary and a secondary together and hope everything will work. Those x-rays have to be focused or modulated in order to create the desired effect on the secondary. This is (most likely) where Fogbank comes in. It is probably the material that makes up the interstage, the material that separates (and surrounds) the primary and secondary and, during detonation, “shapes” the flow of x-rays to compress and heat the secondary.
Fogbank is what some have referred to as an aerogel. “Aerogels are extremely low-density materials that feel like polystyrene and look like smoke or fog” (2). They have many desirable properties for a nuclear warhead, including high strength and low weight, and excellent heat insulation. Fogbank is also a material that presents some serious occupational safety and health hazards (3). The GAO report referred to “disagreements on the implementation of safety guidelines” between NNSA and the contractor, one of the issues that caused the delay and extra cost.
The GAO report found many problems with the Stockpile Life Extension Program, but this broad statement in the “Conclusions” section stood out; “All of these management issues raise significant questions about NNSA’s ability not only to complete life extension programs on time and on budget that meet all refurbishment objectives, but also its ability to manage the design and production of new weapons, such as the proposed reliable replacement warhead.” That doesn’t exactly give me great confidence in these stewards of our nuclear weapons.
Alas, for the time being it looks like the Navy will have to make do with those decrepit W76 warheads currently deployed as they anxiously await delivery of refurbished warheads. They only just took delivery of the first (overdue) refurbished warhead, which is, according to NNSA’s principal deputy administrator, “another great example of the unsurpassed expertise throughout NNSA’s national security enterprise” (4). If this is an example of “unsurpassed expertise”, I can only imagine what any effort to build the Reliable Replacement Warhead would have looked like. Perhaps the NNSA is living in a fogbank.
As for the GAO, “The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. Often called the "congressional watchdog," GAO investigates how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars” (from the GAO Website). And if the GAO report referenced here is any indicator of their work, it is taxpayer dollars very well spent. Encore GAO!
Author’s Notes and References:
(1) Nuclear Weapons: NNSA and DOD Need to More Effectively Manage the Stockpile Life Extension Program, GAO-09-385 March 2, 2009 at http://gao.gov/products/GAO-09-385.
(2) Fogbank, Arms Control Wonk (blog), http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/1814/fogbank
(3) US forgets how to manufacture Trident missile warhead component, domain-b.com, 3/10/2009, http://www.domain-b.com/aero/mil_avi/miss_muni/20090310_trident_missile.html
(4) Refurbished W76 Warhead Enters U.S. Nuclear Weapon Stockpile, National Nuclear Security Administration press release, 2/23/2009, http://nnsa.energy.gov/2286.htm
How the US forgot how to make Trident missiles, Sunday Herald, http://www.sundayherald.com/news/heraldnews/display.var.2494129.0.how_the_us_forgot_how_to_make_trident_missiles.php