It’s hard to believe I’m writing this, but the Biden administration, while unwinding or reversing a good many rules, regulations and programs of the Trump administration, is forging ahead with one particularly outrageous one: the ramping up of production of so-called plutonium “pits.” These cores of the man-made radioactive element plutonium, each weighing a few pounds, can bes small “useable” atomic bombs on their own even smaller than those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and also serve as the fission triggers needed to ignite vastly more powerful hydrogen-based fusion-bomb weapons.
As the magazine Physics Today reports, for the first time in 37 years (a span ot time that puts us back in the era of the Cold War when the USSR still existed and the US and Soviet Union each had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert aimed at each others’ cities), the US is preparing to re-industrialize the fabrication of hundreds or maybe thousands more of these plutonium “pits.”
This has happened before.
In August 1945, before the smoke had even cleared from the burned-out ground zero area of Nagasaki following the dropping of the “Fat Man” plutonium bomb on that Japanese port city, the US, on the authority of nuclear war criminal President Harry Truman, began working to develop the ability to mass produce its new city-destroying atomic bomb weapon.
With the end of WWII in August 1945, and until August 1949, the US stood alone and unchallenged in the world with a monopoly on the most powerful weapon mankind had ever imagined. Yet as astrophysicist authors Michio Kaku and Daniel Axelrod documented in their terrifying and revealing book To Win a Nuclear War: The Pentagon’s Secret War Plans (South End Press, 1987), the US began cranking out a nuclear stockpile as quickly as it could. It did this at enormous expense despite its monopoly and although it was believed that the Soviet Union, the only other country conceivably capable of making a bomb of is own, was a good eight to ten years away from developing its own A-bomb. Remember, the USSR had been a crucial ally of the US during Allied war against Nazi Germany, yet against the wishes of many scientists working on the bomb, Washington had had nonetheless insisted on excluding the Soviets from the Manhattan Project, striving mightily to prevent keep that ally in the dark about the new weapon’s development. US intelligence had no idea even in 1947 and mid 1948 that the Soviets had thoroughly penetrated the program.
Industrializing production of the implosion core of the plutonium bomb was a tough job. By December 1945, four full months after WWII had ended, the US had only two new handmade atom bombs. By June 1946, the total number of US atom bombs was 9, also essentially handmade. By the following March, though, there were 35 bombs, and by May of 1948 the number had reached 50.
Why was the US so anxious to make all these weapons? Even in early 1948 a Soviet atomic bomb seemed a distant prospect, so there was no reason for such a rush. Except that, according to Kaku and Axelrod, Truman actually had pre-emption and an appalling first-strike holocaust on his mind. Acting on the advice of Pentagon strategists, he wanted to have at least 300-400 of the new bombs, as well as the hundreds of new B-29 bombers it would take to deliver them to targets, all ready quickly in order to totally destroy the Soviet Union as an industrial nation and society in a surprise attack before it could create its own bomb.
Three hundred was the minimum number of Nagasaki-sized bombs that the Pentagon’s new nuclear strategists claimed it would take to destroy every city in the USSR and to cripple the Red Army so it couldn’t retaliate by over-running western Europe.
Thankfully for the world and the people of the Soviet Union, Moscow, with the critical help of volunteer spies inside the Manhattan Project — most notably the German physicist Klaus Fuchs, a naturalized British citizen, and the teenage US Harvard physics undergrad Theodore Hall — the latter acting on his own initiative as a volunteer, obtained and passed to Soviet agents the plans and details needed to make and detonate its own plutonium bomb. Exploded successfully on Aug. 29, 1949, it was an almost carbon copy of the US “Fat Man,” and came as a total surprise to Truman and US military and intelligence officials. At that moment, with the US fortunately still possessing only some 250 atom bombs still with too few B-26 bombers to deliver them, the pre-emptive attack plan was called off by Truman. (The US continually throughout the Cold War, sought a breakthrough, most notably Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile shield scheme, that would allow it to launch a crippling first strike on the USSR that the Soviets could not retaliate against, but happily never achieved that capability.
We have to wonder why first Trump and now Biden decided it is urgent now to make even more of these deadly plutonium “pits,” as bomb scientists call the plutonium cores.
According to the Physics Today article, Democrats and Republicans in Congress under President Trump had already by 2018 authorized funding for the production of 80 new pits a year. To do that the Energy Department has divided up the job between the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which is to make 30 new pits per year, and the Savannah River Site, which is supposed to crank out another 50 pits a year.
The justification for this production ramp-up is that while the US has 3800 nuclear weapons now, under the nuclear arms limitation treaty negotiated with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the “pits” in many US bombs are old, and since the plutonium in them decays over time, those need to be replaced with new pure plutonium or they might not work. The Pantex weapons assembly plant in Amarillo, TX reportedly has a staggering 38 tons of plutonium metal on hand in storage, enough to make tens of thousands of new “pits.” but it all takes time and money.
The question is, why are we doing this? Neither the US nor Russia can use the bombs they already have, even if they were to all work properly and explode. Just a first strike on Russia or China by the US with its full arsenal, or even a Chinese attack on the US with its 300 nuclear missiles, would be enough to destroy the world, either through a nuclear winter, a blanket of deadly nuclear fallout or both.
Isn’t the sane thing to do at this juncture, after we’ve survived a 75-year era of insane and terrifying Mutual Assured Destruction stand-off, to call a halt to new bomb construction and to sit down with all the nuclear nations of the world (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea) and negotiate a ban on and total destruction of all nuclear weapons?
As it is, the cost of building the infrastructure to produce the called-for 80 “pits” per year will be staggering. Indeed, the US won’t be able to produce that many annually even by 2030, according to a 2019 report from the Institute for Defense Analyses. So if we can’t do it, if we need the money for much more important things like education and technological R&D to combat the climate emergency, and if the last thing the US or the world needs is more nuclear weapons, why don’t we just call the whole thing off now?
We got lucky over the last three-quarters of a century of the nuclear era. There were documented times that the US, certainly, and the USSR too, came within hours of launching a nuclear attack before saner heads prevailed — in Europe, in Vietnam (twice!), in China, in the Korean War, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We can’t count on such luck continuing through the next 75 years, if we even get that many years as a species the way the climate crisis is sharpening and speeding up.
This all goes back to that over-rated Nobel Laureate President Barack Obama, who in his second term agreed with Congress to approve a $1.5-trillion, 10-year “refurbishment and modernization” of the US atomic arsenal. It was a stupid, misguided and politically cowardly decision then, but it set this whole crazy train rolling.
It’s time for the US public to pull the emergency brake on the train.
This past January 1 a measure banning nuclear weapons obtained the required number of country signatures to have it become a part of the Geneva Convention on the law of war, along with already banned chemical and germ weapons, landmines and cluster bombs. It’s time for the US and the other nuclear nations, none of whom have signed onto that new international ban and to make it real.
Biden should do the right thing: Call for a nuclear summit and ban the goddamned bomb!
His new “pits” industrialization project is the pits!
Dave Lindorff is co-producer with Mark Mitten and Director Steve R. James working on a documentary film about the life of Ted and Joan Hall. Ted Hall at 18, the youngest scientist in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, gave critical information about the design of the US plutonium bomb, allowing the Soviets to detonate a virtual copy of that bomb by August 1949. He was suspected of spying for the USSR but was never prosecuted and died in the UK in 1999.