Wearing three-dimensional glasses and standing on the cave floor, the rare outsider can watch animations that don’t just look like a missile hitting a wall and crumpling, but depict the actual way a missile hitting a wall would crumple, down to the molecular level of the metals used in the missile’s nose cone, body and tail fins.
Another simulation, restricted to personnel with only the highest security clearances, re-creates the reaction inside the thermonuclear explosive package of a warhead. It shows the signal sent to the detonator and the detonation of high explosives that trigger the critical mass. The trigger ignites the primary radioactive plutonium component, which in turn sets off the secondary uranium device, which in turn dramatically increases the power of the blast.
The advances in computer simulations, combined with the data from actual past tests, have allowed scientists to understand more about the physical attributes of nuclear weapons than the scientists who invented them. Now, they say, this knowledge will allow them to add 20 years to the quiet life of the B61. But not more.
All of this modernization and invention requires staggering sums, time and testing. Twenty-eight teams of scientists and engineers at Los Alamos and Sandia determined what would be required in terms of new technology to update the B61 — and how much it would cost.
In the fall of 2011, a little-known interagency group called the Nuclear Weapons Council gathered in Washington to hear the results of the project. The council coordinates work by the NNSA and Pentagon on nuclear weapons and must approve any technical changes. Its members include senior officials from the Defense Department and the Energy Department and the head of the NNSA.
When the group gathered a year ago and first heard the new price tag for the B61, there was stunned silence even in a roomful of people accustomed to dealing with billions of dollars. “It was the trigger that sucked all the air out of the room,” one participant said.
The cost was $7 billion for an estimated 400 bombs. The explanation was that it had climbed so high in part because designers had added more safety features to an already nearly foolproof bomb, namely an optical scanner that required a retina scan from authorized personnel. Eventually the scanner and some other new equipment were dropped to save money, cutting the cost to $6 billion.
But recently, an independent Pentagon assessment concluded the cost would actually be much higher — at least $8 billion and possibly as high as $10 billion, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development, which has funding jurisdiction over the NNSA. Officials at the agency say it is too early in the process to have an accurate budget figure for the program.
The soaring cost has rippled through other modernization programs. To try to keep the entire stockpile overhaul within budget, the administration delayed refurbishing two other aging warheads used on Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles by three years and pushed back construction of a new nuclear-armed submarine by two years.
In the complex matrix of repairs and deployments, the two-year delay in submarine modernization means that at some point in the near future, the nuclear-armed sub fleet patrolling the oceans will be reduced by two vessels for a period of time.
Each delay adds to the cost of maintaining the nuclear status quo. But the work goes on. An Air Force team with a $340 million budget is trying to figure out how to mount the B61 onto its new F-35 fighter jet, which itself is expected to be the most expensive weapon in U.S. history. And once the B61 overhaul is completed, the nation’s vast nuclear weapons complex will turn its attention to the next major weapons renovations: the W78 and W88, a pair of thermonuclear warheads whose redo is already predicted to cost at least $5 billion more.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.