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From a war just ended to remnants of an earlier conflict, this past week saw an important milestone in the history of nuclear weapons: The last of the largest U.S. nuclear bombs was dismantled. This was a Dr. Strangelove bomb, conjuring up images of Armageddon and apocalypse. At the same time, one of the smallest warheads was also removed from the nuclear arsenal.
Now, these are steps the U.S. is taking apart from any arms-control agreement with Russia. And thousands more American nuclear weapons are slated for destruction. NPR's Mike Shuster reports the process could take a decade or more.
MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: The big one was called the B53. It was the size of a minivan, weighed four-and-a-half tons. Its destructive power was 600 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. The ultimate Cold War weapon, says Dan Poneman, the deputy secretary of energy.
DEPUTY SECRETARY DAN PONEMAN: This is a Cold War relic. There's no continuing military need for it, and it shows the direction of our future.
JOE CIRINCIONE: It's hard to understand how much destructive power this nine-megaton monster had.
SHUSTER: Joe Cirincione is a longtime analyst of nuclear weapons policy, now the president of the Ploughshares Fund.
CIRINCIONE: It would kill everything within a nine- or 10-mile radius, and spread radioactivity for hundreds of miles around the blast site.
SHUSTER: The United States built 340 B53s. Several were tested in the atmosphere in the South Pacific. They were so big that only two could fit in a B-52 bomber. But between 1962 and 1967, 24 of them were always on continuous alert in the air, ready to be dropped over the Soviet Union. Those flights were ended more than 40 years ago, but B53s remained in the active U.S. arsenal until 1997. It's taken the last 14 years to dismantle them.
SHUSTER: The much-smaller W70 met a similar fate a week ago. It had been deployed on tactical missiles, which have been withdrawn from service. But there are still thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons in line for destruction, says Dan Poneman.
PONEMAN: As we look forward, we're going to have years and years ahead of us of other legacy systems that as we move to a world of less reliance on nuclear weapons, we're going to be retiring other systems as well.
SHUSTER: It could take 10 years or longer to get that job done, says Joe Cirincione.
CIRINCIONE: The same facilities that dismantle U.S. nuclear warheads are also refurbishing U.S. warheads. And right now, a decision has been made to prioritize refurbishment. So we're actually building more nuclear weapons than we're dismantling.
SHUSTER: Right now, the U.S. is dismantling about 250 warheads a year at the Pantex nuclear plant in Amarillo, Texas - a process that is much slower than it used to be, says Bruce Blair, co-founder of Global Zero, a bipartisan group that supports the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons.
BRUCE BLAIR: In the 1990s, the United States was dismantling at a rate three times the rate of today. And partly, that's because we were not refurbishing a lot of weapons, extending their life spans. And now we have a plan, just the next 10 years we're supposed to be extending the life, the longevity, of roughly 2,000 strategic, high-yield nuclear weapons.
SHUSTER: The U.S. still has some 1,800 strategic warheads deployed, a thousand on land- and sea-based missiles that could be launched in 12 minutes, and another 2,500 in reserve. These are the warheads that are being refurbished, and that have slowed the dismantling process.
BLAIR: At the rate that we're dismantling now, which is around 250 or so weapons per year, a weapon that is ready to be retired and destroyed may not get to Pantex for actual dismantling for 10 years because the queue is so long.
SHUSTER: How long is that queue? Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman would only say, it's a goodly number. Other sources say it could be as many as 4,000 - in warehouses, just waiting for ultimate destruction.
Mike Shuster, NPR News.