U.S. Nuclear Weapons More Stable than Expected

The National Nuclear Security Administration says the rate at which nuclear weapons materials degrade is slower than they once believed. That means the the nation's nuclear arsenal may not need updating as soon as was thought. But the debate in Congress about the long-term reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile continues.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENÈE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renèe Montagne. Good morning.

A new study suggests that plutonium, the critical component of nuclear weapons, may have a surprisingly long shelf life. Some U.S. weapons are close to 30 years old and scientists have worried the plutonium inside them may be slowly deteriorating. The new findings released yesterday suggest that's not the case, that plutonium could survive a very long time.

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: The problem with plutonium is it's only been around since World War II, so it's hard to say how it ages over the long haul. Plutonium is radioactive. And when the atoms decay, they send bits and pieces plowing through the rest of material, potentially causing damage. The official estimate had been that plutonium should hold up for at least 45 years. The new findings indicate the weapon pits should be okay for almost twice that - 85 years at least.

The Department of Energy is planning to build a new facility to remanufacture plutonium cores for bombs. Stephen Schwartz says the new findings mean there is no rush to do that. He edits the journal called “The Nonproliferation Review.”

Mr. STEPHEN SCHWARTZ (Editor, The Nonproliferation Review): Plutonium aging, other warhead reliability problems, they've all been touted as reasons why we have to go back and start remanufacturing weapons. And if we're going to do that, they'll say well, we've got to build an entirely new weapon's complex. I think this calls into question whether or not that's a wise and necessary course of action.

KESTENBAUM: The aging research was conducted by Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories. The Department of Energy says the new findings do not change its plans. The DOE wants to redesign the warheads in the current weapons and build replacements. That would require a new facility capable of making 125 plutonium pits a year.

Thomas D'Agostino is deputy administrator for Defense programs at the DOE.

Mr. THOMAS D'AGOSTINO (Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs, Department of Energy): The nation has a choice. We either, one, continue to refurbish and maintain large quantities of our Cold War nuclear weapons, or we can shift to the future, which is have a much smaller nuclear weapons stockpile, much safer and more secure stockpile that actually takes in, what I would say, higher technology features.

KESTENBAUM: Some members of Congress may have questions about that plan. David Hobson is a Republican representative from Ohio and chairs the spending panel that oversees the nuclear weapons complex. He says DOE has played up the plutonium-aging problem for years, now he says it doesn't look like a pressing problem.

Representative DAVID HOBSON (Republican, Ohio): We don't need to charge off here and waste a lot of money. I think this gives us a chance to step back and take a breath and decide what's the right thing to do.

KESTENBAUM: The government is planning to pick a design for the new warheads in the coming weeks.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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