US Nuclear Weapons: A Secret History

us-nuclear-weapons-secret-historyThis book by Chuck Hansen is an encyclopedia of nuclear weapons, and I recommend it as such to anyone who would be interested in reading about that. The book is listed at $144 on Amazon, so I recommend trying the interlibrary loan system before you commit to a purchase. It had less information about the subjects in which I have as an interest, and the short review to follow is a reflection of that. It has great pictures of various nuclear blasts as well as pictures of various weapon bodies and various delivery systems. Hansen’s feelings about nuclear weapons are not subdued. He describes in the introduction that “…a vast empire has arisen largely unnoticed in the United States.” “The secret empire has cost taxpayers dearly: $89 billion in development costs since 1940, and $700 billion for delivery systems for its products. The sheer volume and number of these products is mind-boggling: between 1945 and 1986, the nuclear weapons complex in the U.S. manufactured approximately 60,000 warheads of 71 types for 116 different weapons systems.” “The U.S. government has always gone to extreme lengths to keep this orgy of nuclear self-indulgence hidden from public view.” There is a reference that “…tens of millions of documents chronicling this vast ‘black project’ remain locked away in vaults…” (It makes one wonder how the author was able to find anything to write about.)

Ironically, a discussion follows of how it had been thought the U.S. would maintain a nuclear monopoly much longer than what occurred. The Soviets were able to steal everything they needed by espionage to develop atomic bombs while bypassing the need to invent and test the design information developed by the U.S.

The Foreword by Erwin Knoll continues the dismissive tone. He gives a long description of the measures taken to impose loyalty oaths on all government employees (which fans of civil liberties will agree were at a minimum misguided and undoubtedly unconstitutional). “Atomic secrecy became the model and rationale for pervasive secrecy in all aspects and branches of government…” “What makes this all the more remarkable—and depressing—is that it is based on a hoax. The secret that lies at the core of our policy of nuclear secrecy is that there are no secrets—none at least, that are of more than minor technical significance. Nuclear secrecy is a fraud.”  (I doubt there will be a challenge, because protecting secrets often involves ignoring speculation.)

I did read the sections on weapons physics, which includes discussions of fission and fusion physics and several other pertinent subjects. I did find at least one interesting reference to the high explosives used in the weapons in the section on postwar fission weapons development. The five foot diameter of “Fat Man” was required because of “…the need for two thick layers of high explosive ‘lenses’ to implode the tamper-plutonium-initiator assembly.” “Approximately half the weight of the ‘Fat Man’ (MK III prototype) was high explosives used to detonate the nuclear charge.” The weight of the bomb could be reduced with lighter ballistic casings and more powerful high explosives. “This weight reduction could be as much as 1,000 to 3,000 pounds without any change in the internal components.” There are extensive discussions of advances in pit design which I will leave to technology fans who want to learn about that.

My autobiography “An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats: Urban Myths Debunked,” has an early discussion of how I was asked about the NORAD warheads during my interview for a position at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. After the fact I believed I was offered a job because I refused to discuss the warheads. The interviewer undoubtedly did not know that I knew little about the warheads, which was outside my need to know in my military assignment. My assignment was primarily evaluating the operational readiness of Nike-Hercules surface to air missile units, and I did know that most of those had nuclear warheads. I did not know the Atomic Energy designation for the warheads was W-31. The Army designations, in the unlikely case the interviewer had mentioned those, were M-72 and M-74. I did enjoy reading about the missiles and their warheads and the design efforts of Sandia and Los Alamos to upgrade the warhead. I was also interested to read that, “Retirement of W-31 Nike Hercules warheads began in July 1967. As of 1987, approximately 75 Nike Hercules weapons remain in service in Europe and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces. The W-31 Nike Hercules has two yields in the range of one or two kilotons up to 40 kilotons.” “The warhead section of the missile weighs 1,123 lbs.” That was information I didn’t need to know in my military assignment, but I found it interesting. This book would be an ideal source for someone wanting details about another particular warhead and weapon system.

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