Disclosure of nuclear numbers reveals high accuracy of unauthorized tracking
Shortly after nuclear weapons sleuths Tom Cochran and Bill Arkin published their unauthorized estimate of the size of the U.S. arsenal in 1984, they got a call from alarmed U.S. officials.
"They called us over and wanted to know where we got the numbers," Cochran recalls of a time when almost everything about history's deadliest weapon -- including how many the United States possessed -- was classified secret. It was a culture of secrecy born during the Cold War out of a belief that nuclear candor could be dangerous.
America's official nuclear silence ended Monday when the Obama administration not only disclosed the number of U.S. nuclear weapons available for use in wartime -- 5,113 as of Sept. 30 -- but surprised many by also publishing weapons totals for each year dating to 1962. (Data from before 1962 were released in 1993.)
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the disclosures prove that the United States is doing its part for disarmament.
The move also puts pressure on Russia, the world's other main nuclear power, to provide similar accounting as the two sides consider following up their new START arms reduction treaty with a more comprehensive accord.
The U.S. disclosure didn't just strike a blow for transparency in the global debate over nuclear weapons. It revealed the remarkable accuracy of the effort by Cochran, Arkin and others, who labored for 30 years to pull back the veil that surrounded these weapons.
"We were pretty close all along -- sometimes right on the button," said Robert S. Norris, another of the nuclear number detectives.
Their most recent estimate was 5,100, or 13 weapons fewer than the number the government published Monday.
The number reflects the nuclear-tipped missiles and bombs that U.S. forces have available for wartime use. It does not include about 4,500 retired warheads that are in storage awaiting dismantlement.
Many official nuclear secrets remain, although they arguably are secret in name only. It is widely known, for example -- but not officially confirmed -- that building a bomb takes more than eight pounds of plutonium.
The administration has made no public commitment to publishing updated stockpile numbers in the future but said the logic of disclosing the number implies that it will be updated annually.
Norris, author of a biography of Leslie R. Groves, the Army general who led the Manhattan Project that built the world's first atomic bomb in 1945, said the cocoon of secrecy that enveloped the U.S. nuclear program grew out of a belief that the survival of the nation was at stake.