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U.S. Dismantles The Biggest Of Its Cold War Nukes

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This past week, the U.S. dismantled the last of its largest nuclear bombs, the B53.

This was a Dr. Strangelove bomb, conjuring up images of armageddon and apocalypse. At the same time, one of the smallest warheads was also removed from the nuclear arsenal.

These are steps the U.S. is taking apart from its arms control agreements with Russia. And thousands more American nuclear weapons are slated for destruction in a process that could take a decade or more.

The B53 was the size of a minivan and weighed 4 1/2 tons. Its destructive power was 600 times that of the Hiroshima bomb dropped on Japan at the end of World War II.

"This is a Cold War relic — there's no continuing need for it. And it shows the direction of our future," says Dan Poneman, the deputy secretary of energy.

The United States built 340 of these huge bombs. Several were tested in the atmosphere in the South Pacific. They were so big that only two could fit in a B-52 bomber. Between 1962 and 1967, there were 24 of them on continuous alert in the air ready to be dropped over the Soviet Union.

Those flights were ended more than 40 years ago, but B53s remained in the active U.S. arsenal until 1997. It's taken the past 14 years to dismantle them.

"It's hard to understand how much destructive power this 9-megaton monster had," says Joe Cirincione, a longtime analyst of nuclear weapons policy and now president of the Ploughshares Fund.

"It would dig a crater 750-feet deep. It would kill everything within a 9- or 10-mile radius, and spread radioactivity for hundreds of miles around the blast site," he says.

Smaller Bombs Also Dismantled

The much smaller W70 met a similar fate a week ago. It had been deployed on tactical missiles, which have been withdrawn from service.

But there are still thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons in line for destruction, says Poneman.

"As we move to a world of less reliance on nuclear weapons, we're going to be retiring other systems as well," he says.

It could take 10 years or longer to get that job done, says Cirincione.

"The same facilities that dismantle U.S. nuclear warheads are also refurbishing U.S. warheads," he said. "And right now a decision has been made to prioritize refurbishment. So we're actually building more nuclear weapons than we're dismantling. That didn't use to be the case, but it is now."

Right now, the U.S. is dismantling about 250 warheads a year at the Pantex nuclear plant in Amarillo, Texas. The process is much slower than it used to be, says Bruce Blair, co-founder of Global Zero, a bipartisan group that supports the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons.

"In the 1990s, the United States was dismantling at a rate three times the rate of today," he said. "Partly that's because we were not refurbishing a lot of weapons and extending their life spans. And now we have a plan, just the next 10 years, we're supposed to be extending the life, the longevity, of roughly 2,000 strategic, high-yield nuclear weapons."

The U.S. still has some 1,800 strategic warheads deployed, a thousand on land- and sea-based missiles that could be launched in 12 minutes — and another 2,500 in reserve. These are the warheads that are being refurbished and that have slowed the dismantling process.

"At the rate that we're dismantling now, which is around 250 or so weapons per year, a weapon that is ready to be retired and be destroyed may not get to Pantex for actual dismantling for 10 years, because the queue is so long."

How long is that queue? Poneman would only say it's a goodly number. Other sources say there could be as many as 4,000 bombs in warehouses awaiting destruction.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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