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US Nuclear Weapons Developments

On 23rd February part of a British nuclear weapon was detonated underground at the Nevada test site. The Krakatau test was named after the volcano which killed 36,000 people when it erupted in 1883. This was described as a “sub-critical” test. It was not designed to produce a nuclear yield, but it did involve detonating high explosive to compress plutonium.

The US has embarked on a project to design new nuclear weapons. The Reliable Replacement Warhead programme was initiated by Congress to steer the nuclear industry away from building new bunker-busting bombs. It is supposed to be designing weapons which have similar effects to existing weapons, but which are more reliable. There are concerns that the project will be used by industry for its own ends. The initial focus is on designing a new plutonium pit for the W76 warhead. The warheads on British submarines are copies of the W76.

In April the head of Los Alamos nuclear laboratory said he will use the data from the British Krakatau test for the Reliable Replacement Warhead project. He added that he would be surprised if the British weren’t watching the Reliable Replacement Warhead programme pretty closely.

The Navy have asked Congress for $500 million for the Conventional Trident Modification. This is intended to give the United States a non-nuclear prompt global strike capability. The goal is to be able to hit any target in the world within 1 hour. If the system is deployed then US Trident submarines would each carry two missiles armed with conventional weapons, as well as their nuclear arsenal. Because the missiles are likely to fly over Russia or China towards their targets they could easily trigger a nuclear war. The Senate Armed Services Committee was told that the new weapons would only have a limited effect against hardened targets – they might be able to close the entrances to a bunker rather than destroy the bunker. The accuracy of the new system at full range is questionable. This looks like Lockheed Martin trying to get $500 million from Congress for a system that is useless as well as dangerous.

Conventionally armed Trident has a new Manoeuvrable Reentry Vehicle (MaRV). MaRV may in due course be used by both the US and Britain for nuclear weapons. As Trident is made more accurate so the development of a lower-yield, more “useable” nuclear warhead becomes likely.

On 2nd June the Pentagon are due to simulate a nuclear explosion by detonating 700 tons of high explosive at a test in Nevada. The explosion will not involve nuclear material, but will be twice as powerful as the lowest yield option for the B61 nuclear bomb which is currently in service. The test will measure the effect of a nuclear weapon on an underground bunker. The experiment has been given the name “divine strake”.


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