Most modern nuclear weapons depend on a plutonium pit as the "primary" that begins the chain reaction resulting in a thermonuclear explosion. A pit is a critical component of a nuclear weapon and functions as a trigger to allow a modern nuclear weapon to operate properly.
The Department of Energy announced on September 23, 2002, its intent to begin an examination of several possible sites for a Modern Pit Facility to produce plutonium pits for new and refurbished nuclear weapons.
The United States is the only nuclear power without the capability to manufacture a plutonium pit. About three-fourths of the U.S. surplus plutonium is relatively pure in the form of so-called pits, which have been removed (and deactivated) from existing warheads.
The remaining fourth of the surplus was in the process pipeline, mostly as plutonium residues, when processing was suddenly discontinued. The Soviet government processed all of its material to completion, so now all of the Russian surplus is in the form of pits or its weapon-form equivalent.
The Foster Panel Report, also known as the FY2000 Report to Congress of the Panel to Assess the Reliability, Safety, and Security of the United States Nuclear Stockpile, found that it could take 15 years from the point of developing a conceptual design for a pit facility until the final construction of the facility is completed.
The report stated that, "If it is determined through the science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program that one or more of our existing pit designs is no longer reliable, and therefore is not certifiable, our nuclear stockpile would, in effect, be unilaterally downsized below a level which could maintain a strong nuclear deterrence."
That is the hook which supporters of an expanded nuclear program will use to justify an abrogation of the treaty ban, and begin their new-generation arms race. If they don't get their way - to fiddle with and refurbish the existing nukes - they will argue that deterrence is at risk; a preposterous notion, as our existing arsenal is more than enough to blow us all to Pluto.
If new money is released, the nuclear weapons laboratories are expected to refurbish the casings on the existing nuclear B-61 and B-83 warheads, according to Energy Department nuclear czar and former UK Lockheed executive, Everett Beckner, in testimony before a Senate committee. Beckner claimed that both weapons have yields "substantially higher than five kilotons," so he has determined that the study will not violate a 1994 U.S. law prohibiting research on "low-yield" nuclear weapons.
A version of the B-61, modified to strike hardened and deeply buried targets, was added to the U.S. stockpile without nuclear testing in 1997. There is a serious question about the effectiveness of such a weapon on underground bunkers, and there is a concern that the neighboring effect of the radiation cloud would be devastating.
A nuclear strike on North Korea, for example, could generate deadly radioactive fallout, poisoning nearby countries such as Japan. Most observers do not believe that the new weapons can be developed without abandoning the non-proliferation treaty and sparking a new and frightening worldwide nuclear arms race.
The nuclear hawks are stepping out from behind their Trojan Horses of nuclear space travel and 'safe', new nuclear fuels and are revealing a frightening ambition to yoke the nation to a new legacy of imperialism. President Bush has decided that America's image around the globe is to be one of an oppressive nuclear bully bent on world domination.
Mohamed El Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (the man at the UN charged with managing U.S. demands against Iran's uranium enrichment) said in 2003 that developing new nuclear weapons could hamper efforts to reach agreement with other countries who might want to expand their nuclear programs; like Iran and Pakistan, for example.
In September 2004 the Senate went along with a White House push to reduce the preparation time required for nuclear testing in Nevada; clearing the way for a resumption of nuclear test explosions which have been banned since 1992. It seeks to cut the time it would take to restart testing nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert from three years to two years. The Bush administration wants the period cut to 18 months.
Congress plans to build the first permanent U.S. nuclear waste repository in the desert northwest of Las Vegas, scheduled to open in 2010 and would hold up to 77,000 tons of radioactive waste.
The Energy bill that has emerged from Congress would provide $580 million for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal project in 2004 -- around $11 million less than Bush had requested but far above a $425 million limit earlier endorsed by the Senate.