Los Alamos looks to create self-disabling nuclear warheads

Published 6 December 2006

Under a secret three year program, scientists have been working on methods to automatically destroy a warhead if it is stolen or tampered with; though details are secret, method might involve an acid that destroys the mechanisms and contaminates the radiactive core

Loose nukes have long concerned American planners, but most of their worry has been focussed on preventing their theft from former Soviet weapons sites — an endeavor that has long been criticized as underfunded by the present administration. Perhaps that is because President Bush’s energies have been dedicated to preventing America’s own nuclear weapons from falling into terrorist hands. For three years now, scientists at Los Alamos working under a secret presidential directive have been hard at work developing a technology that would deactivate a warhead if it was stolen. The United States has never had a bomb stolen, but it has lost a few at sea.

The security system, the Los Angeles Times reported, “will be part of a new generation of nuclear weapons approved formally last week by a panel of the Defense and Energy departments.” Although the details are a closely guarded secret, the general idea to destroy both the electronic and mechanical components, rendering the plutonium and uranium materials unusable for even a dirty bomb. This might be achieved with a powerful acid or other chemical that would contaminate the uranium and plutonium core if the warhead was tampered with.

Both Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos laboratories are competing to design the new generation of bombs (known as the “reliable replacement warhead”), and the Nuclear Weapons Council is expected to name the winner very soon, perhaps as early as this week.

-read more in Ralph Vartabedian’s Los Angeles Times report