Nuclear Enterprise
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A panel of expert contributors offers its views on the risks and rewards of the nuclear enterprise, focusing on issues of safety, regulation, and public perception. Contributors discuss specific experience and issues regarding the technical safety of weapons and power plants, management operations, regulatory measures, and the importance of accurate communication by the media.
Published: Hoover Institution Press an imprint of Independent Publishers Group on
ISBN: 9780817915261
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Nuclear Enterprise - George P Shultz

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16.

Session I

Safety Issues—Nuclear Weapons

1

Designing and Building Nuclear Weapons to Meet High Safety Standards

SIDNEY D. DRELL

Setting Standards

Appendix: Technical Issues of a Nuclear Test Ban

Nuclear Weapon System Safety

Enhanced Nuclear Detonation Safety

Insensitive High Explosive

Fire-Resistant Pits

Missile Propellant

Reliability of the Nuclear Weapon Stockpile

A Nondevice Component

The Device

Reliability Assessment of the Stockpile

The safety record of the United States nuclear weapons enterprise is quite remarkable. We have built, deployed, exercised, and dismantled roughly 70,000 warheads and about 10,000 launchers. During the sixty-plus years since 1950 there have been a number of accidents, including thirty-two acknowledged Broken Arrow accidental events leading to losses, disappearances or crashes that involved U.S. nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and could have resulted in serious consequences (see Table 1A.1 in appendix on page 39). The fact that not one single nuclear warhead has directly caused a casualty is quite an achievement. That achievement required a lot of hard work and reflects on the determination of principled people to do the right thing, often against organizational resistance. The next paper¹ will discuss several of the close-call safety incidents and the effort led by its author to remedy the problems that caused them. His role is a lesson for all involved in such activities in which failures in safety can lead to devastating consequences.

In thinking about questions of safety in such very high-consequence operations, and what it takes to achieve an excellent safety record, I give highest priority to four criteria. They are, in no particular order:

1. Set the priorities in the proper order.

2. Bring to bear the best available analytical tools to analyze and understand the risks and consequences of failure.

3. Enforce rigorous discipline and accountability at each step in the process.

4. Red Team the activities—that is, perform critical reviews by independent technical experts, including exercising systems to the point of failure—with good communication channels up and down the line between management and engineers.

All four of these criteria are critically important.

1. Set the priorities in the proper order.

The nuclear enterprise did not automatically start that way. Initially we did not fully appreciate the impact and the amount of radioactive fallout generated in nuclear explosions above ground in the atmosphere. Based on what was known at the time,² the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 were detonated at altitudes between 1,500 and 2,000 feet. The military motivation for those detonation altitudes was to maximize the distance away from the aim point at which over-pressures of approximately two to three pounds per square inch would be generated to cause significant structural damage. Such altitudes were high enough to prevent the fireballs from reaching the ground where they would have dug up extensive amounts of debris, mixed with radioactive fission fragments, which would have caused considerably more radiation sickness casualties.

However, during the years following the war, the United States conducted about 200 nuclear weapons tests above ground at the Nevada Test Site (plus about 130 in the Pacific Ocean) that created fallout. This ended with the negotiation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) in 1963, which forbade any nuclear yield testing except underground. In fact, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) found itself with conflicting responsibilities: to create an arsenal of nuclear weapons for the United States against a growing Soviet threat that included nuclear weapons, and at the same time to ensure public safety from the effects of radioactive fallout. The same conundrum faced the AEC with regard to civilian nuclear power generation. It was charged with promoting civilian nuclear power and also with protecting the public.

When it became widely known that these tests were responsible for introducing significant amounts of harmful radioactive elements into the food chain (including iodine¹³¹ and cesium¹³⁷ in particular), a strong public reaction resulted. This practice ended with the LTBT in 1963, but its legacy still persists today and challenges the credibility of the U.S. government and, indeed, of many governments in protecting citizens’ safety from the effects of nuclear accidents. The nuclear concerns were greatly enhanced by the Castle Bravo test of a U.S. thermonuclear weapon in 1954 at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Its yield of 15 megatons was more than twice the anticipated value, and so was the fallout that was driven in an unintended direction by the change in the wind pattern, causing casualties among the civilian population more than 100 miles downwind.

To summarize, setting the priorities means insisting that the burden of proof rests on proving that the system is safe, rather than being satisfied with lack of evidence that it is unsafe. It was exceedingly difficult to implement such a priority for the stockpile in the chilling environment of the Cold War and within a process that evolved gradually through those years, starting in the 1950s. Modernization and improvement programs for the weapons gave priority to meeting military requirements, such as achieving maximum yield-to-weight ratios for warheads and maximum payloads and ranges for missiles. Safety was, in general, not viewed with quite the same urgency. Moreover, in the earlier years we knew much less and had few analytical tools and limited capabilities for simulation. Fortunately, the priority of safety struggled to the fore in the nuclear weapons enterprise during the 1970s and 1980s, spurred on by the determined commitment of a small cadre of courageous leaders in the weapons labs and enabled by the development of more powerful analytic tools providing critical data.

We are still today working our way through safety challenges that were made more difficult by design decisions before the end of the Cold War that gave higher priority to military requirements. Safety issues for military systems in other nuclear weapon states, which we do not control and about which we are not fully apprised, are of concern in considering the future of the nuclear enterprise. As we were recently reminded all too clearly by the reactor incidents at Fukushima, new initiatives in civilian nuclear power around the world are also cause for concern.

2. Bring to bear the best available analytical tools to analyze and understand the risks and consequences of failure.

This requires performing experiments and acquiring data which provide a basis for understanding how to design weapons that meet attainable goals that we set for limits on the probability of an unintended or accidental detonation and on the maximum acceptable explosive energy released in such an accident.

Modern nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal have an array of several thousand technically sophisticated components. Figure 1.1 illustrates what I am talking about. The picture shows an array of the components of one of the bombs designed to be carried on the B-52 and B-2 bombers in our strategic force as well as on a number of aircraft in NATO. It is necessary to understand the warhead electrical system, along with the nuclear package containing the high explosive and the nuclear material, well enough so that a probabilistic risk analysis can be made.

Setting Standards

It is widely alleged, and I am aware of no contradictory assertion, that the standard for the maximum acceptable nuclear yield in an unintended detonation was originally set in the 1960s when it was decided to deploy nuclear bombs aboard the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers. A Navy captain, upon learning that nuclear weapons were to be loaded aboard the carriers in a compartment in proximity to the engineering operations center, asked himself: What if one of the weapons unintentionally or accidentally detonated? How large a nuclear yield would endanger the continued operation of the ship if one of the detonators were triggered by an accident? Detonation of the fifty or so pounds of high explosives could cause serious but acceptable damage to the bulkhead. But the new danger posed by a nuclear bomb is the release of radioactivity once a fission chain reaction is initiated. Given realistic conditions—i.e., the proximity of the weapons storage room to the engineering operations center and the limited radiation shielding of the floors and bulkhead between them—the flux of neutrons produced during the fission would present the greatest hazard.

Figure 1.1   The B61 nuclear bomb in various stages of disassembly of its almost 6000 parts. The nuclear component is contained in the blunt metal cylinder near the upper middle.

The captain calculated that, if the fission chain continued long enough to produce an energy equivalent to four or more pounds of TNT, the flux of neutrons into the engineering operations center would approach or exceed the threshold for causing immediate incapacitation of the members of the crew in the room. As a result, the ship would be essentially dead in the water. Fission neutrons are emitted typically with one to two MeV (megavolt) energy, and cannot readily be absorbed by iron or steel walls less than a foot thick. (The large flux of gamma rays emitted during the fission chain is more readily absorbed.) This was accepted as a sensible and practical criterion to design to. As a result, nuclear weapons were designed to ensure that the fission chain will terminate quite prematurely. More precisely stated, the criterion is to not initiate more than about 10¹⁷ fissions following an accident that triggers a detonator at any one point and that ignites the high explosive in the bomb.

Having established the criterion for safety in terms of its consequences—no nuclear energy release exceeding the equivalent of four pounds of TNT—it is also necessary to set a goal for a limit on the acceptable risk of failure in meeting this standard. Once that standard is set, the challenge is to do the experiments and get the data upon which to base a probabilistic risk