In an ultra-sterile room at a secure factory in Kansas City, U.S. government technicians refurbish the nation’s nuclear warheads. The job is exacting: Each warhead has thousands of springs, gears and copper contacts that must work in conjunction to set off a nuclear explosion.
Eight hundred miles (about 1,300 kilometers) away in New Mexico, workers in a steel-walled vault have an equally delicate task. Wearing radiation monitors, safety goggles and seven layers of gloves, they practice shaping new warhead plutonium cores — by hand.
And at nuclear weapons bases across the country, troops as young as 17 keep 50-year-old warheads working until replacements are ready. A hairline scratch on a warhead’s polished black cone could send the bomb off course.
The Associated Press was granted rare access to key parts of the highly classified nuclear supply chain and got to watch technicians and engineers tackle the difficult job of maintaining an aging nuclear arsenal. Those workers are about to get a lot busier. The U.S. will spend more than $750 billion over the next 10 years replacing almost every component of its nuclear defenses, including new stealth bombers, submarines and ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles in the country’s most ambitious nuclear weapons effort since the Manhattan Project.
It’s been almost eight decades since a nuclear weapon has been fired in war. But military leaders warn that such peace may not last. They say the U.S. has entered an uneasy era of global threats that includes a nuclear weapons buildup by China and Russia’s repeat threats to use a nuclear bomb in Ukraine. They say that America’s aged weapons need to be replaced to ensure they work.
“What we want to do is preserve our way of life without fighting major wars,” said Marvin Adams, director of weapons programs for the Department of Energy. “Nothing in our toolbox really works to deter aggressors unless we have that foundation of the nuclear deterrent.”
By treaty the U.S. maintains 1,550 active nuclear warheads, and the government plans to modernize them all. At the same time, technicians, scientists and military missile crews must ensure the older weapons keep running until the new ones are installed.
The project is so ambitious that watchdogs warn that the government may not meet its goals. The program has also drawn criticism from non-proliferation advocates and experts who say the current arsenal, though timeworn, is sufficient to meet U.S. needs. Upgrading it will also be expensive, they say.
“They are going to have extreme difficulty meeting these deadlines,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a non-partisan group focused on nuclear and conventional weapons control. “And the costs are going to go up.”
He cautioned that the sweeping upgrades could also have the undesired effect of pushing Russia and China to improve and expand their arsenals.