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November 6, 2015

America updates its nuclear bombs

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A $100 billion dollar project to upgrade the United States’ largely outdated nuclear arsenal is underway.

Since the Cold War, the U.S.’s stockpile of weapons built during the arms race with Russia stands at about 1,500 nuclear bombs and warheads today. Although the Obama administration has promised not to build more nuclear weapons, major efforts are being made at labs around the country to improve the accuracy and security of existing bombs, like the B-61.

A lightweight two-stage thermonuclear weapon, the B-61 was first developed in the 1960s and relied on an out-of-date parachute guidance system and obsolete analog components. An $8 billion plan to upgrade the B-61 — the U.S.’s most expensive bomb project ever — will improve its technology, making it a more accurate and reliable weapon with less nuclear fallout and fewer casualties.

“If we have a weapon that is lower-yield and greater accuracy, and our adversaries know that, it’s my own belief that that weapon then is a more effective deterrent,” said Donald Cook, deputy administrator at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Nuclear engineers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico have developed a more easily controllable material used to detonate the nuclear chain reaction in the B-61. The “insensitive high explosive,” as it is called, creates a safer bomb by making it harder to detonate.

Few people argue that making safer bombs is bad, but opponents of the project criticize the considerable cost and say weapons laboratories working on the upgrades have a conflict of interest since they stand to profit from the government contracts.

Although the total cost of the project has already doubled and could end up costing even more, those in the military argue that the long term benefits of better protecting Americans outweigh the costs.


Vocab

Cold War a 50-year period of political and military tension after World War II between the Soviet Union and the United States that included a buildup of military arms on both sides

nuclear weapon – explosive device that uses atomic reactions and releases vast amounts of energy from fairly small quantities of matter

arms controlinternational restrictions placed on the development, proliferation and usage of small arms, conventional weapons or nuclear and chemical weapons; usually exercised through the use of international treaty agreements

Warm up questions
  1. Do you believe nuclear weapons should be used in certain cases?
  2. What countries currently have nuclear weapons?
  3. Since nuclear weapons were first used in WWII, what effects could new technology have on a nation’s nuclear arsenal?
Critical thinking questions
  1. What are some reasons the U.S. government wants to update its nuclear weapons’ arsenal?
  2. Do you think the U.S. should spend more money to modernize its multi-billion dollar nuclear weapons’ program? Explain.
  3. Do you agree or disagree with anti-nuclear weapons’ critics who allege that profit-motivated laboratories are behind the U.S.’s efforts to upgrade its nuclear arsenal? Explain.
  4. How would improving the accuracy and technology of nuclear weapons help reduce the chance of ever having to use those weapons?
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