Where do nuclear weapons go to die?

Where do nuclear weapons go to die?

Just days after R. Jeffrey Smith reported at Foreign Policy that Barack Obama and his advisors were set to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal by at least a third (from the 1,550 warheads allowed under an existing arms treaty to closer to 1,000), the New York Times is suggesting that the president could endorse such cuts in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. White House spokesman Jay Carney insists that Obama won’t be unveiling any new, specific proposals in his speech, but that doesn’t mean the president won’t touch on nuclear disarmament more broadly.

"The big question is how to accomplish a reduction that Mr. Obama views as long overdue, considering that Republicans in the Senate opposed even the modest cuts in the new arms reduction treaty, called Start," the Times notes.

But here’s another Big Question: What actually happens to those warheads if they’re cut? After all, as Jeffrey Lewis and Meri Lugo pointed out at FP back in 2009, "you can’t just leave the warheads out on the curb on Tuesday morning for the garbage collector to pick up." Fortunately, Lewis and Lugo went on to outline what nuclear arms reduction looks like in practice. The warheads suffer a slow death, equal parts mundane and perilous:

Retiring a weapon is accomplished through paperwork. If the weapon is in storage, it continues to sit there. Eventually, small steps begin to indicate its fate on the nuclear weapons equivalent of death row. Workers come along to remove the batteries and other so-called "limited-life components" that have to be regularly changed in active nuclear weapons.

At some point — perhaps years later — the Energy Department ships the weapon to Pantex, the central U.S. nuclear weapons factory near Amarillo, Texas. It is a homecoming of sorts because the weapon was most likely built there. Disassembly is the assembly sequence in reverse, with each step occurring in a precise order over a few days to a few weeks, depending on the type of bomb or warhead.

The work is time-consuming and dangerous. The warheads now undergoing dismantlement were not designed to come apart — other than very rapidly, over the Soviet Union. Because nuclear weapons contain explosives and other hazardous materials, workers must take care to minimize health risks, for example berylliosis — a lung disease caused by inhalation of the toxic metal beryllium.

Pantex has about 40 operational bays and cells in which teams of workers can take apart nuclear weapons. The most sensitive operations occur in so-called "Gravel Gerties" — concrete buildings covered with gravel. In the event of an explosion, the building would collapse in on itself, burying the hazardous materials — and the workers, who would not have survived the blast. Once the nuclear weapon is disassembled, the remains can be stored for future use in different weapons (as in the case of plutonium pits) or disposed of (the explosives are incinerated).

Obama might very well reiterate his vision for a world without nuclear weapons on Tuesday night. Just don’t expect him to mention the part about paperwork, batteries, and years of painstaking disassembly.