nuclear questions
July 29, 2020

The Defense Department and the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration in May argued in a previously undisclosed memo to Congress that the United States needs a new, more powerful nuclear warhead program because of risks and vulnerabilities in the current one, Roll Call reports.

The argument is "groundbreaking," per Roll Call, because the government rarely, if ever, acknowledges the arsenal's weaknesses. Among the issues the departments address in the "closely held" document are what they consider to be an over-reliance on one type of submarine-launched warhead that apparently isn't destructive enough and could suffer from technical problems, as well concerns about land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles that are set in a "launch under attack posture." That means the weapons are ready to launch within minutes of a reported enemy attack, which increases the risk of firing in the wake of a false alarm. And when ICBMS are launched, they cannot be returned to their silos. The Pentagon usually downplays the possibility of reacting to a false report, Roll Call reports, but the memo uses it to justify a new weapon that supposedly wouldn't carry the same risks.

Critics think developing the new sub-launched weapon, known as a W93, is unnecessary (they believe the current warheads are plenty forceful), too expensive, and could harm global non-proliferation efforts. It remains to be seen if the Pentagon and the NNSA will be able to convince Congress and whoever wins the 2020 presidential election with their arguments, but the debate will likely gain more attention going forward. Read more at Roll Call. Tim O'Donnell

August 12, 2019

More information is slowly starting to trickle out about the explosion last week near Severodvinsk, Russia, that left at least seven people dead.

The blast occurred on Thursday, and local officials said at the time that "a brief rise of the radiation level was registered." Russia's Ministry of Defense said a liquid rocket engine had exploded and put the death toll at two, but beyond that, the government did not release any additional information. Now, it has come out that there were seven victims, all scientists, with five working for the Russian Federal Nuclear Center.

In an interview with a Russian newspaper on Sunday, the center's scientific director, Vyacheslav Solovyov, said they had been studying "small-scale sources of energy with the use of fissile materials." U.S. analysts believe the explosion involved the test of a new, nuclear-powered cruise missile, which NATO calls the SSC-X-9 Skyfall, The New York Times reports. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said this missile can travel anywhere in the world and could avoid American missile defenses.

The Pentagon has said such a missile would fly at a low altitude on an unpredictable path. Experts say the United States tried to make a similar weapon in the 1950s and '60s, and abandoned the effort due to the risks. President Trump tweeted about the matter on Monday evening, saying the U.S. is "learning much from the failed missile explosion in Russia," and people are "worried about the air around the facility, and far beyond. Not good!" He also said the United States has "similar, though more advanced, technology," but U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal that while the U.S. does have nuclear-armed cruise missiles, scientists are not developing a nuclear-powered system. Catherine Garcia

January 19, 2017

Energy secretary nominee and former Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) deferred to scientists when asked Thursday during his Senate confirmation hearing if he would support the longstanding ban on nuclear testing. "I'm going to rely upon their observations of whether there is clear technical ability to use the technology that we have today," Perry said, referring to Department of Energy scientists and private-sector scientists. "I think anyone would be of the opinion that if we don't ever have to test another nuclear weapon, that would be a good thing — not just for the United States, but for the world."

Perry's answer came after some chiding from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who asked the question because of President-elect Donald Trump's interest in allowing more countries to get nuclear weapons, and the fact that "more than 60 percent" of the Energy Department's budget deals with nuclear energy. Initially, Perry answered the question by pointing to the importance of the U.S. having "a nuclear arsenal that is modern, that is safe." "The question," Sanders said, cutting in, was about "nuclear testing."

Perry was similarly circumspect about whether he would support the storage of nuclear waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, a site the U.S. government had once eyed for dumping nuclear waste. Trump's administration has reportedly discussed reviving that plan. "I will not sit here in front of you and tell you absolutely no way is Nevada going to be the recipient of high-level waste," Perry said. Becca Stanek

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