Friday, October 31, 2008

An Aging Nuclear Weapons Stockpile

(Image from Wikipedia)

From The Captain's Quarters:

Glenn Reynolds linked a report that the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are calling for refurbishment of the existing nuclear weapons in the U.S. Good find by Glenn. A brief word of explanation.

It has always been true that we can’t sit on the nuclear weapons stockpile without working to maintain the purity of the materials. Uranium and transuranics (e.g., Plutonium) do decay, albeit most isotopes with very long decay half lives (e.g., Pu-239 has a half life of 24,100 years). Decay introduces impurities into the material, and purity is a requirement for miniturization of nuclear weapons, something the Chinese have not yet learned like the U.S. (this means that weapon delivery is made easier).

But by far the larger effect of decay is tritium, which is used as material for fussion in thermonuclear weapons in conjuction with the fission to enhance their power. The half life for tritium is 12.32 years. In other words, as the stockpile sits, its effectiveness decays away. This must be considered in thinking about national security as we move forward into the twenty first century. In the ongoing work to maintain the effectiveness of the stockpile, TVA won a bid for a government program to produce Tritium (this is done by activation of Lithium) at their Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant.

Read more ....

My Comment: An excellent summary by the Captain's Journal on the problem.

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