America’s Nuclear Bomb Problem: Outdated B61s Need Expensive Upgrades If U.S. Wants To Keep Them Around

By Philip Ross on September 23, 2013 1:38 PM EDT

bomb
A frontal view of four B-61 nuclear free-fall bombs, which served Europe during the Cold War of the late-20th century. The bombs, which have been in storage for decades, need serious refurbishments, otherwise they could become ineffective. (Photo: Creative Commons)

U.S. has a nuclear bomb problem. Mainly, the country's stockpile of B61 nuclear bombs, which have collected dust ever since they were shoved into storage following the Cold War, are in need of some serious - and expensive - upgrades should the U.S. government want to keep them around. According to The World Herald, some of the components of the aging B61s are so old, they can't be replaced at all.

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The slender, gray cylinder bombs, which weigh 700 pounds each and measure 11 feet long and 13 inches in diameter, were designed and built in the 1960s by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a nuclear weapon facility located in New Mexico. The B61s were deployed at NATO air bases in Europe and were meant to dissuade Soviet aggression on the continent during the Cold War. There were about 3,155 of the bombs built during that time.

According to a 2005 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. still has about 480 nuclear weapons in Europe, stored at eight bases in six countries. The U.S. has about 250 of the B61s left lying around air bases in Missouri and North Dakota, with additional bombs stored in Nevada and New Mexico.

The B61s are the most versatile weapon in the U.S. stockpile. They were built to withstand supersonic speeds and can be carried long distances. The nuclear devices also contain about 6,500 parts, and decades of storage have degraded the bombs to a point where some of the electronic pieces are obsolete and unreliable.

"The B61 life-extension program is absolutely necessary," Gen. C. Robert Kehler, a Commander of the U.S. Department of Defense, told The World-Herald. "Much has been deferred. Now we don't have the luxury of waiting."

But it's not a matter of simply dusting the bombs off and tightening a few screws here and there. The nuclear bombs need expensive upgrades - refurbishments that are estimated to cost about $28 million per bomb, according to The World Herald. That's not to mention the estimated $65 billion price tag to retool America's missiles, submarines and aircrafts, something politicians on both the left and the right are reluctant to do during a time of congressional belt tightening.

In August, the National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains the U.S.'s nuclear stash, pitched a solution to America's B61 nuclear bomb problem. They want to not only refurbish the bombs, but also upgrade them.

"The B61 contains the oldest components in the U.S. arsenal," Don Cook, National Nuclear Security Administration Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs, said in a press release. "As long as the United States continues to have nuclear weapons, we must ensure that they remain safe, secure and effective without the use of underground testing. The B61 has been in service a decade longer than planned, and our refurbishment program is a scientific and engineering challenge."

Among the administration's plans are to add certain security features to the B61 bombs, including a guided tail kit that would allow pilots to aim the B61 more accurately at targets.

This isn't the first time engineers have raised the alarm about America's aging nuclear bombs. Last year, engineers at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico scrapped spare B61s looking for pieces they could use to repair active bombs.  According to an article in The Washington Post from Sept. 2012, they also rebooted old machines to make the retrograde parts themselves. Engineers even resorted to buying old parts on eBay.

Read more from iScience Times:

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NASA Fuel Shortage: Will Plutonium Scarcity End Deep-Space Exploration By 2020?

Great Barrier Reef Bomb Drop: US Military Infuriates Environmentalists After Unloading Explosives Off Australia's Coast [VIDEO]

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