Sunday, November 25, 2012

Fogbank, for example

Things decay. Just sitting around unused things decay. Even if protected from active agents of entropy like sun and wind and rain. Things by themselves, alone and untended, go through changes.

Knowledge gets lost. It’s hard to imagine in an era where information is supposedly expanding at an exponential rate, but some stuff we learned how to do once we no longer have the know-how for. Maybe the processes didn’t get written down comprehensively, or the instructions were misplaced. Maybe the people who had the skills dropped dead.

I confess I hadn’t considered the possibility of America’s nuclear arsenal being a victim of these two truths. Nuclear bombs just sitting around lose their effectiveness over time; internal chemical reactions make them unstable – and dangerous. Being a nuclear power requires maintenance of the stockpiles. But sometimes we don’t quite know how to do that, it seems.

Rachel Maddow discusses the difficulties in her book, Drift: the unmooring of American military power:
These … fixes … require[] real, hard-won technical nuclear expertise … Fuzes, for example, were failing, and there was nobody around who could fix them: ‘Initial attempts to refurbish Mk21 fuzes were unsuccessful,’ admitted an Air Force general, ‘in large part due to their level of sophistication and complexity.’ The fuze that previous generations of American engineers had invented to trigger a nuclear explosion (or to prevent one) were apparently too complicated for today’s generation of American engineers. …

Then there was the W76 problem. W76s were nuclear bombs based mostly on the Navy’s Trident submarines. By refurbishing them, we thought we might get another twenty or thirty years out of them before they needed replacing. The problem with refurbishing the W76s – with taking them apart, gussying them up, and putting them back together – is that we had forgotten how to make those things anymore. One part of the bomb had the code name ‘Fogbank.’ Fogbank’s job was to ensure that the hydrogen in the bomb reached a high enough energy level to explode on cue. But no one could remember how to make Fogbank. … [N]o one today remembers the exact formula …

It took more than a year just to rebuild the long-dismantled Fogbank manufacturing plant at the Oak Ridge nuclear lab … But even after years of trying, even after the Fogbank production program went to ‘Code Blue’ high priority, the technicians were never able to reproduce a single cauldron of Fogbank possessed of its former potency.