Kansas.- In an ultra-sterile room at a secure factory in Kansas City, U.S. government technicians are renewing the country’s nuclear warheads.
The job is demanding: Each warhead has thousands of springs, gears and copper contacts that must work together to trigger a nuclear explosion.
About 1,300 miles away in New Mexico, workers in a steel-walled vault have a delicate task.
Using radiation monitors, safety goggles and seven layers of gloves, employees practice forming new plutonium cores for nuclear warheads by hand.
And at nuclear weapons bases across the country, troops as young as 17 are operating warheads that are more than 50 years old.
A small scratch on the polished black cone of a warhead could dislodge the bomb.
The Associated Press was given rare access to key parts of the top-secret nuclear supply chain and was able to watch technicians and engineers carry out the difficult task of maintaining an aging nuclear arsenal.
These workers will be much busier. The United States will spend more than $750 billion over the next decade to replace nearly every component of its nuclear defense, including new stealth bombers, submarines and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.
It is the country’s most ambitious nuclear weapons test since the Manhattan Project.
Peace cannot last
It has been almost eight decades since a nuclear weapon was fired in war. But military leaders warn the peace may not last.
They say the United States has entered an unpleasant era of global threats that include China’s nuclear arms buildup and Russia’s repeated threats to use a nuclear bomb against Ukraine.
In their view, it is necessary to replace the United States’ aging weapons to ensure that they work.
“We want to preserve our way of life without fighting large wars,” said Marvin Adams, director of weapons programs at the Department of Energy. “Nothing in our toolbox really helps deter attackers if we don’t have the foundation of nuclear deterrence.”
According to the treaty, the United States maintains 1,550 active nuclear warheads and the government plans to modernize all of them.
Military rocket engineers, scientists and teams must ensure that older weapons remain operational until new ones are installed.
The program has also been criticized by experts and nonproliferation advocates who say the current arsenal, while outdated, is sufficient to meet U.S. needs. Modernization will also be expensive, they say.
“You’re going to have a lot of difficulty meeting these deadlines,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan group focused on nuclear and conventional arms control. “And the costs will go up.”
Russia and China could expand their arsenals
He warned that the improvements could also have the unintended effect of pushing Russia and China to increase their arsenals.
There are thousands of tiny parts in each warhead, so a steady hand is the key to success. For this reason, technicians undergo a competency assessment that includes disassembling and assembling a mechanical watch.
“Everything is done under a microscope with tweezers,” said Molly Hadfield, a spokeswoman for the Kansas City plant. “And it’s a matter of passing or failing. “Either the clock works or it doesn’t.”
This factory would be at capacity even if no renovation took place.
All warheads are subject to regular maintenance requirements. Their plastics age and metal gears and cables weaken with age and exposure to radiation.
The factory is also working on warheads for the B-21 Raider, a futuristic stealth bomber, while also supporting the Sentinel, a new intercontinental ballistic missile, and warheads for a new class of submarines.
“There is a tremendous modernization effort underway,” said Eric Wollerman, who manages the Kansas City complex for the Department of Energy under a federal contract with Honeywell. “If you want to upgrade the launch systems, you would also upgrade the missile warheads and the associated bombs.”
To meet demand for maintenance and modernization, the facility has embarked on a hiring boom.
The Kansas City plant employs 6,700 people, a 40 percent increase from 2018, with plans to add several hundred more. The Los Alamos lab hired more than 4,000 people during the same period.