International

Nuclear weapons: U.S. must put its house in order first, says report

Even as the United States continues to exert pressure against India and other emerging powers for not falling in line with its vision for a global nuclear order, a stinging report by a major watchdog has revealed that the U.S.' own nuclear weapons are potentially unstable and critical intra-agency guidance on maintaining nuclear safety has been “vague.”

In a report that sharply chastised the nodal National Nuclear Security Administration for not sufficiently briefing the Pentagon on dangers lurking within the U.S.' ageing nuclear weapons stockpile, the Government Accountability Office this week drew attention to the euphemistically-named issue of “limitations.”

Military requirements



Limitations, which refer to areas where a nuclear weapon may not meet certain military requirements throughout its delivery sequence, could potentially impact critical functions such as detonation safety under abnormal conditions, weapon reliability, weapon delivery, replacement of limited life components, nuclear yield and worker safety.

The GAO's investigation into whether the NNSA had helped mitigate the 52 limitations it identified revealed, worryingly, that the guidance that the NNSA had been supplying the Pentagon on this subject comprised “statements that... contain highly technical information and vague wording and may not clearly communicate a limitation's potential impact on stockpile operation, maintenance, and war planning”.

Citing one disturbing example based on its interview with a military service lead project officer, the GAO said when this officer had sought to clarify the impact that a particular limitation may have on weapon reliability with officials at a national laboratory, his efforts “were inconclusive and... for this particular limitation, NNSA's guidance provides little additional technical information and concludes that the weapon may not operate as required in a particular delivery mode, and the recommended mitigation action is to have laboratory staff brief STRATCOM war planners”.

Highlighting a potentially lethal disconnect between a relatively abstract, science-focused approach at the NNSA and U.S. laboratories on the one hand and the field-ops focused requirements of the Pentagon, the GAO quoted the officer in question complaining

that the NNSA document “is not very helpful in explaining this limitation's potential operational impact” and that discussing a limitation in terms of military requirements and Stockpile-to-Target Sequence would be more helpful.

Design lifetimes

With the majority of the U.S.' nuclear weapons stockpile currently being produced over 20 years ago it is clear that many of them are being sustained beyond their original design lifetimes, according to experts.

With the inexorable progress of time and the parallel decay of atomic weapon quality the limitations will steadily acquire greater importance in governing the fate of these weapons, especially upon deployment.

In this context, the GAO's findings that the NNSA does not have a well-defined, documented process for executing its stockpile surveillance programme may be considered deeply troubling

and a forewarning of a possible nuclear misfire that could embarrass the nation's global nuclear safety policy.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 1:56:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/nuclear-weapons-us-must-put-its-house-in-order-first-says-report/article2880025.ece

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