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How to really dismantle an atom bomb

Little notice was paid last week to the announcement that authorisation had finally come through to begin dismantling the last of the minivan-size B-53s, the most powerful thermonuclear bombs ever deployed in the active US stockpile.

world Updated: Oct 20, 2010 10:00 IST

Little notice was paid last week to the announcement that authorisation had finally come through to begin dismantling the last of the minivan-size B-53s, the most powerful thermonuclear bombs ever deployed in the active US stockpile.

A terror weapon, if there ever was one, the 10,000-pound B-53 was designed to deliver an explosion of nine megatons. That is the equivalent of 9 million pounds of TNT, or 600 times the power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

Believe it or not, the last 50 B-53s were not retired from the active stockpile until 1997, and even then some were held as a “hedge” in case a new threat emerged.

The two nuclear bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, termed military targets at the time, immediately killed more than 200,000 people and resulted in the deaths within five years of an additional 100,000. They won the war against Japan and none has been used since.

Some early versions of the B-53 were retired as early as 1967. In the 1970s, the United States was dismantling 1,000 to 3,000 nuclear weapons a year. By 1987, there were 25 of the B-53 bombs in the active stockpile. They were considered so dangerous that only dummies were used when crews practiced loading and unloading them on B-52s.

It was not until 1997, when the bunker-busting B-61-11s were deployed, that retirement of B-53s began- but not disassembly.

Disassembly of nuclear weapons is a costly and dangerous process. Safety studies and special tools are needed just to handle the chemical explosive elements of the bomb, according to a 1994 Department of Energy report. “This study does not include study of disassembly of the B-53 primary [its nuclear package] since tooling and procedures are still being developed for this process,” the study said.

The process includes separating the high explosives from the nuclear material. The second stage calls for the nuclear materials and other components to be shipped to NNSA's Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge, Tenn., where a building has been upgraded to handle the job. There the enriched uranium components will be removed and stored. Then other non-nuclear components will be sent to other NNSA plants for final disposition.

The current dismantlement program for retired US nuclear weapons has a completion date of 2022 because thousands of them await dismantlement.

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