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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)


The W84 was developed for the Air Force Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM). The design assignment was given to the Laboratory in 1978; the first warhead was produced in 1983. The design includes advanced features such as insensitive high explosives, enhanced fire safety, and improved defense against unauthorized use. The 530 GLCM W84 warheads cost $630 million, or $1.1 million per warhead ($239,500 is the cost of the non-fissile and non-deuterium components, thus costs are mostly the nuclear weapons material).

The enduring nuclear weapon stockpile contains thirteen systems within nine weapon classes. In addition, the W84 is in the inactive stockpile (IS). It's carrier, the ground-launched cruise missile, was eliminated by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1988. Eight of the nine weapons in the current stockpile are not as safe and secure as they could be made. Only the W84 nuclear warhead is equipped with all of the safety and surety features available. The other eight designs do not incorporate all of the safety and surety features that are available. The W62, in fact, does not have any safety features.

Inactive stockpile warheads do not have limited life components installed, and may not have the latest warhead modifications. These warheads serve a number of purposes ranging from reliability replacements that act as a hedge against the discovery of a problem with a large number of active warheads, to the more predictable replacement of warheads consumed by quality assurance and reliability testing. This hedge is required because the United States will not have, for a decade or more, the capacity to produce certain new components for warheads. The time it would take to deploy warheads in the inactive stockpile depends on the delivery system, and availability of tritium gas and other limited-life components. These warheads or their components could also be used to provide new capabilities. This time would range from weeks in the case of bombers, to years in the case of ICBMs.

A nuclear explosive safety study was conducted in September 1992, during which a panel of qualified individuals reviewed the operations. Of note, this study was conducted prior to the improvements made in the nuclear explosive safety study process that followed a Board Recommendation (93-1) and reporting requirement in 1993. The study was performed under the assumption that it would expire in 5 years, and the basis for assumptions made during the study were not captured in a manner conducive to long-term change control for the operation. A letter extending the expiration of the study identified the completion of a hazard analysis as an explicit condition of the extension. No analysis has been done.

There are no mechanical insults at Pantex that would result in a detonation of the Insensitive High Explosive. The laboratory letter cited represented a joint laboratory conclusion regarding mechanical initiation of a detonation. The same letter, however, identified mechanical release of material, significant worker safety issues, and burning dispersal of plutonium from thermal insults as hazard scenarios that could not be screened. The laboratory response also explicitly declined to address multiple abnormal environments.

The Pantex Plant last performed W84 surveillance operations in May 1998. W84 operations have not been conducted at Pantex since 1998.

On August 20, 2002, BWX Technologies, Inc., [Babcock & Wilcox Technologies, a McDermott Company that operates Pantex] submitted a startup notification report (SNR) concerning the restart of W84 disassembly and inspection operations at the Pantex Plant. No documented safety analysis for the W84 program exists, and no changes to the existing W84 disassembly and inspection process are planned prior to restarting operations. The nuclear explosive safety study for this program, approved in 1993, has been administratively extended until January 2003. The W84 procedures will be updated to incorporate new site-wide controls, such as those for fire protection and lightning protection. The SNR identifies a BWXT readiness assessment in September 2002 with an NNSA readiness assessment to follow in October.

The seamless safety (SS-21) upgrade for the W84 program is scheduled for completion in 2005.

While meeting with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (Board) on October 28, 2002, Everet H. Beckner, Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), discussed the potential need to restart disassembly and inspection operations for the W84 Program in advance of completing the Seamless Safety for the 21st Century (SS-21) process.

The Board recognized NNSA needed to maintain an aggressive surveillance program to ensure that latent or age-related safety issues are identified as early as possible, thereby allowing the greatest opportunity for prevention or mitigation. However, the Board emphasized that gathering W84 surveillance data still requires an adequate safety basis. The applicable safety principles have been institutionalized by NNSA in its Integrated Safety Management System, and further focused on nuclear weapon operations through implementation of the Board's Recommendation 98-2, Safety Management at the Pantex Plant. In the long term, these safety principles will be implemented in the W84 Program through application of the SS-21 process. For the interim surveillance project, once NNSA has clearly defined the scope of work, the operating contractor must identify the hazards associated with that scope of work and develop appropriate controls, defending the adequacy of this safety basis to the authorizing official. Thereafter, properly tailored readiness and nuclear explosive safety reviews-also key components of the Integrated Safety Management process-can be conducted. Only then can work be performed in a safe and deliberate manner.

A compatibility program initiated during W84 warhead production is paying dividends by serving as a source of aged materials for advanced study. Some specimens of LX-17, UF-TATB (ultrafine TATB) boosters, and LX-16 pellets from W84 production are already being subjected to accelerated aging in a weapon-like atmosphere for ten years.

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