Obama agrees to a tentative deal with the Russians to cut our nuclear arsenal by one third over the next 10 years.

MOSCOW – Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev confidently committed to a year-end deal to slash nuclear stockpiles by about a third on Monday, but the U.S. leader failed to crack stubborn Kremlin objections to America’s missile defense plans — a major stumbling block to such an agreement.

The planned START replacement pact — the centerpiece summit agreement — calls for each side to reduce strategic warheads to a range of 1,500 to 1,675, and strategic delivery vehicles to a range of 500 to 1,100. Current limits allow a maximum of 2,200 warheads and 1,600 launch vehicles. The new treaty, as conceived, would run for 10 years. Each side would have seven years to reach reduction goals with the final three years used for verification.

Medvedev called the plan a “reasonable compromise.” link

I have no problem reducing the number of nuclear weapons in our arsenal but I can’t help but wonder if we are maintaining the ones we actually need to defend ourselves. I haven’t heard of any plans to refurbish any of our existing weapons and we know they must be aging.  In a report from 2008, Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested the next president consider what nuclear middle-age and decline means for national security.

It has always been true that we can’t sit on the nuclear weapons stockpile without working to maintain the purity of the materials. Uranium and transuranics (e.g., Plutonium) do decay, albeit most isotopes with very long decay half lives (e.g., Pu-239 has a half life of 24,100 years). Decay introduces impurities into the material, and purity is a requirement for miniaturization of nuclear weapons, something the Chinese have not yet learned like the U.S. (this means that weapon delivery is made easier).

But by far the larger effect of decay is tritium, which is used as material for fusion in thermonuclear weapons in conjunction with the fission to enhance their power. The half life for tritium is 12.32 years. In other words, as the stockpile sits, its effectiveness decays away. This must be considered in thinking about national security as we move forward into the twenty first century. In the ongoing work to maintain the effectiveness of the stockpile, TVA won a bid for a government program to produce Tritium (this is done by activation of Lithium) at their Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant.

How does Obama stack up against the nuclear stockpile? Opposed. link

I’ve seen no indication there are any plans to improve our aging nuclear arsenal, which provides the deterrent of mutually assured destruction, save for some minor maintenance listed on the NSA website.

The future of the U.S. nuclear stockpile remains uncertain. It’s a fine Utopian notion to think that we can live in a world free of nuclear weapons but it’s not a realistic proposition.

I’m not opposed to reducing our nuclear arsenal, so long as we upgrade and improve what we have left.  There are new scientific discoveries taking place that obsoletes our current nuclear arsenal. Science daily has a great article on the isolation of “element number 9”, which could change the world.

ScienceDaily (July 25, 2002) – LOS ALAMOS, N.M., July 24, 2002 – Sometime after midnight on Feb. 25, 1941, in a cramped, third-floor laboratory at the University of California in Berkeley, Glenn Seaborg, Joseph Kennedy and Art Wahl for the first time isolated a new, man-made element, number 94, one that would change the world.

Today that element, plutonium, is the main ingredient of weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Those weapons now are older – and the plutonium inside them has been aging longer – than any earlier stockpile weapons. So researchers at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Los Alamos National Laboratory are trying to hurry along the plutonium aging process to learn how long the metal will last and how that might affect the stockpile.

The nation stopped making new weapons in 1989 and stopped underground nuclear testing in 1992. Researchers at Los Alamos, which designed five of the seven weapon systems in the U.S. stockpile, play a major role in certifying each year that those weapons are safe, secure and reliable.

Certification depends on understanding how the plutonium cores of the weapons, known as pits, will change with age. link

While we are seeking to cut the number of nuclear weapons in a deal with the Russians, we need to leverage new technology and continue to ensure we have the proper deterrents in place to maintain our national security.