Last Nuclear `Monster Weapon' Gets Dismantled

Last Nuclear `Monster Weapon' Gets Dismantled

In the 1960s, the skies above the United States were patrolled by agents of the apocalypse. Air Force B-52 Stratofortresses circled the North American continent, 24 hours a day, cradling two megabombs in their bellies. Those B-53 bombs each weighed 10,000 pounds. Were one to drop on the White House, a nine-megaton yield would destroy all life out into suburban Maryland and Virginia.

Out at the Energy Department's Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, the last of America's B-53s is in storage. Come Tuesday, it will be dissected: The 300 pounds of high explosives will be separated from its enriched uranium heart, known as a "pit." The pit will be placed into a storage locker at Pantex, where it will await a final, highly supervised termination.

First brought into the U.S. nuclear stockpile in 1962, the B-53 was so big because it was so dumb. With poor precision mechanisms for finding a target -- "Its accuracy was horrendous," Kristensen says. And it was designed to burrow deep. The dumb bomb wouldn't destroy [a target] so much as it would destroy everything remotely near it, leaving -- literally -- a smoldering crater.

At its height, the U.S. had 400 of the mega-gravity bombs.

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21 Responses:

  1. sneak says:

    What I want to know is who let Jim-Bob out of the back room, gave him the keys to the yellow forklift, and then let him drive it over next to the MEGATON YIELD NUCLEAR BOMB.

    The whole scene in that picture seems just a touch informal. Shouldn't those guys be in uniforms or something? That thing can make a fireball a dozen miles wide.

    Also - shouldn't we save just one.... in case?

    • Perry says:

      Sneak: without the permissive action links set properly etc., it might as well be an inert lump. (That's not strictly true, of course -- the conventional explosives could go off and injure someone, but that wouldn't set off the physics package.)

      • Perry says:

        (Oh, and they used astonishingly insensitive explosives developed just for the purpose -- you could probably drop the thing from a substantial height without any risk of the conventional explosives detonating.)

        • Tkil says:

          Previously.

          (Although this is actually an example where the conventional explosives did go off, but the physics package didn't go critical. So... 50% refutation? Dunno.)

          Insert depressingly long list of other Previous links here...

          (And credit where credit is due: that's actually a pleasingly short list, given that the USA had tens of thousands of the damned things over 50+ years...)

          • 205guy says:

            Nice links. I discovered those a few months ago, and was going to post them as well. I find it fascinating that as time (history) progresses, we learn more and more about the recent past. Lots of WW2 stuff still to be declassified or rediscovered soon. Probably Korea and Vietnam too (don't like the wars, they just have the worst excesses/horrors that are the most covered up).

        • phuzz says:

          According to wikipedia it used a mixture of TNT and RDX, so it wasn't that safe.

    • Thomas Lord says:

      Also, sneak: So, the kind of security and handling procedures you'd want for this ... you want to add a requirement that they look crisp in their uniforms? To the extent the photo is true, those boys are doing their level best to keep their sphincters closed and concentrate on the task at hand while exuding calm. Franky says RELAX. Let 'em wear t-shirts. Hell, make sure the after party has some decent sippin' whiskey and few spliffs and some soothing music just so long as they do the thing right. Wait, I can't relax. Shit, gimme the checklist. Let's go down the checklist again. Yeah, yeah.. ok. It's done. Where's that drink? Awright. What are we doing tomorrow?

    • Glaurung_quena says:

      "Also - shouldn't we save just one.... in case?"

      Why? With GPS and modern guidance systems, they don't need huge bombs anymore (arguably they don't need any bombs anymore, but never mind that aspect). Also, most of the yield of a large multi-megaton bomb goes to waste overdestroying ground zero. If your targeting systems are good, then it's cheaper and more effective to make half a dozen smaller and lighter bombs, and then your bomber/missile can carry more warheads and destroy more targets. And then if you really want to utterly destroy a large area, just use several bombs in a cluster.

      • Last I knew DARPA was funding even-more-targeted bomb research. They want to be able to fire a very low yield device into a specific window and blow up a single room. Civilian casualties have become a big deal nowadays, if you blow up Osama but kill 50 innocents in the process you still get bad press.

    • jwz says:

      Just in case... you thought your interests were best served by a nuclear winter making agriculture impossible for decades, resulting in the death of 6+ billion people? Just in case of that, you mean?

      • Rick C says:

        You think a single one of these is likely to destroy all human life on the planet? Bit of an overreaction, yes?

        • jwz says:

          All human life? Unlikely. All human civilization? Well within the realm of possibility, depending on where it went off. This thing would be similar to a small cometary impact, even assuming it didn't trigger the unleashing of the remaining arsenal, which it would. It's a doomsday device.

          • Even if you didn't get a nuclear winter, dropping it in the region of the North Amercian gran belt or on Ukraine while the wind's blowing west would do a great job of collapsing enough agriculture to get a few billion dying of starvation...

      • Russell Borogove says:

        Dude! Nothing short of 9 megatons has a prayer of stopping Mecha-Godzilla!

    • phuzz says:

      Saving one wouldn't be much use, nuclear weapons have a shelf life after which they need to be reconditioned before they can be used.
      As I understand it, explosives begin to break down, various materials get degraded by the radiation from the pit and batteries and things need replacing.
      For a bomb this old it almost certainly works out cheaper to take the fissile material and use it to make new, modern bombs, that can be targeted more accurately to do the same job.

      If this particular bomb was left on the shelf much longer then the chances of it actually going bang when you want it to become increasingly remote, and if there's one thing worse than a massive nuclear bomb, it's a massive nuclear bomb that you can't rely on.

  2. DFB says:

    I hope they saved the plutonium for the space program. Also, are we going to keep running out of medical isotopes? Sometimes I wish I didn't know enough about how stupid "health physicists" can be to worry about that one.

    • Glaurung_quena says:

      "I hope they saved the plutonium for the space program. "

      The B-53 used Uranium instead of plutonium. Yes, the design is that old.

      Anyway, the plutonium used for space probes is a different isotope from the plutonium used in bombs -- Pu-238 (thermal generators for space probes) vs Pu-239 (things that go boom).

      • DFB says:

        I agree that the B-53 used uranium, but I'd love to see a source saying that only one isotope of plutonium is suitable for RTGs.

        • Glaurung_quena says:

          The Wikipedia article on RTGs talks about the requirements for an isotope to be suited to use in an RTG, and lists the various isotopes that are well-suited to doing so. Basically you're looking for an isotope that produces a lot of heat, has a long half-life, and does not produce very much hard radiation (gamma rays) or neutrons. Pu-238 fills the bill admirably, Pu-239 is not even mentioned as a candidate, presumably because it gives off lots of neutrons (ie, turns stuff radioactive, which is bad for safety and for equipment longevity).

          • Philip Ngai says:

            Pu-240 is the isotope which gives off lots of neutrons. This makes it highly unsuitable for nuclear weapons because those neutrons can cause a premature chain reaction or fizzle.

            Pu-239 is the preferred isotope for weapons: "Pure Pu-239 also has a reasonably low rate of neutron emission due to spontaneous fission (10 fission/s-kg), making it feasible to assemble a mass that is highly supercritical before a detonation chain reaction begins."

        • Philip Ngai says:

          An RTG needs a source of heat. In the case of the popular GPHS-RTG, the quantity of heat is about 4,400 watts when new. Such a large source of heat would be quite inconvenient in a nuclear weapon.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GPHS-RTG