This article, about the B-53 thermonuclear bomb, misidentified the atomic test that rained radioactive fallout on Marshall Islanders living on Rongelap Atoll. It was the 1954 Bravo test, not the 1952 Ivy Mike test. The column also misstated the TNT equivalent of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The bomb was as powerful as 9 million tons, not 9 million pounds, of TNT.
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The story of the B-53 'bunker buster' offers a lesson in managing nuclear weapons
Imagine for a moment the impact radioactivity would have had on the world if several B-53s had been dropped on the Soviet Union. The Strategic Air Command (SAC) had models of what the fallout could have been though they never have been made public. Inside SAC, during the Cold War years the B-53 was known as "a crowd pleaser," a former senior officer told me recently.
Some early versions of the B-53 were retired as early as 1967. In the 1970s, the United States was dismantling 1,000 to 3,000 nuclear weapons a year, using their fissionable material to build thousands more modern and safer ones.
Through the 1970s, 50 B-53 bombs and 54 Titan liquid-fueled ICBMs, with identical nine-megaton warheads, had the high-priority responsibility to destroy the Soviet underground bunkers. But in September 1980, after a Titan exploded accidentally in Arkansas, the decision was made to retire the remaining deployed Titans. That left the B-53s alone with the task, causing Pentagon planners to begin developing a new nuclear bunker buster.
By 1987, there were 25 of the B-53 bombs in the active stockpile. They were considered so dangerous that only dummies were used when crews practiced loading and unloading them on B-52s.
In the spring of 1987, with development of a replacement bomb delayed, the Reagan Pentagon decided to activate 25 more B-53s, so that 50 would be available if needed. It was not until 1997, when the bunker-busting B-61-11s were deployed, that retirement of B-53s began- but not disassembly.
Disassembly of nuclear weapons is a costly and dangerous process. Safety studies and special tools are needed just to handle the chemical explosive elements of the bomb, according to a 1994 Department of Energy report. "This study does not include study of disassembly of the B-53 primary [its nuclear package] since tooling and procedures are still being developed for this process," the study said.
More recently, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which runs the nation's nuclear weapons complex, completed safety studies that will permit its Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Tex., to begin dismantling the B-53s.
The process includes separating the high explosives from the nuclear material. The second stage calls for the nuclear materials and other components to be shipped to NNSA's Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge, Tenn., where a building has been upgraded to handle the job. There the enriched uranium components will be removed and stored. Then other nonnuclear components will be sent to other NNSA plants for final disposition.
The current dismantlement program for retired U.S. nuclear weapons has a completion date of 2022 because thousands of them await dismantlement. One cause of the bottleneck is that the Pantex plant is the only NNSA facility that can assemble and dismantle nuclear weapons. More than half of Pantax's tasks involve putting together warheads in the life-extension program so that they can be among the more than 1,000 the United States can keep deployed over the next 20 years.