Workers at PANTEX dismantled the last B53 nuclear gravity bomb, a nine-megaton behemoth affectionately known as the “Crowd Pleaser.”

It sheer size and unfathomable explosive power — 600 Hiroshimas! — are so difficult to comprehend that one can’t help think about the Cold War and ask: What the hell were they thinking?

That’s not what interests me, though.  What really interests me is not that the US weaponeers built the B53 during the Cold War, but they put so little thought into the day when, sooner or later, someone would have to take it apart.

The B53 was, apparently, a nightmare to disassemble.

NNSA had to develop new “tooling” and processes to dismantle the B53.  NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino conveyed the idea when he said “You don’t attack these things with a screwdriver and a crescent wrench.” The picture at the top of post shows one element of the specialized tooling — the bright orange object fastened to the outside of the bomb. If you look at some of the reports from PANTEX, posted on the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Website, you can see descriptions of many tooling issues. (Your search string is: “B53 SS-21″  This was no mean feat, not least because the US withdrew the bomb from the stockpile in 1997 because it was not safe.

(An aside: There is a whole bunch of insipid commentary about this dismantlement being part of the “Prague Agenda,” whether for good or ill.  The dismantlement of the B53 has nothing to do with the Prague Agenda, Global Zero, or anything else.  The weapons was retired in 1997 because it was unsafe. Whether you think the US should have zero, 1,000, or 10,000 nuclear weapons, no one thinks the United States should have B53s.)

A significant part of the problem is that the US did not, during the Cold War, spend very much time or money on the problem of how to make nuclear weapons that were easy to dismantle.  This was a major talking point for Bush Administration officials making the case for the Reliable Replacement Warhead, who were quick to point out that our legacy warheads “were not designed to be taken apart.”

The B53, given the sheer size and hazard of the thing, was unusually problematic.  When the NNSA announced in October 2010 that it was finally authorizing the dismantlement of the B53 after several years of delays, this was a big news.

This was a very expensive dismantlement.

The specific figure is, unfortunately, classified, but the FY2010 DOE budget for dismantlement jumped from $53 million to $96 million in FY2010. When asked why there was so much money in the FY2010 budget request, NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino explained “We needed to do our most complex weapons system dismantlement — work on the W84, the B53, for example — particularly the 53. It’s taking a long time. And so we feel that by the time FY ’10 is done we’ll have finished the authorization basis work, the tooling, the methods and approaches needed to take apart that warhead. And so by FY ’11, by the time FY ’11 starts, we’ll be in the business of actually taking apart that warhead in and of itself.” [Emphasis mine.]

NNSA probably has a cost estimate for the B53 dismantlement.  I’d love to see it.  Sadly, the official “dismantlement” budget that DOE releases seems incomplete. I plotted the number of warhead dismantlements by year against the total spending in the official dismantlement budget — the result is a cloud, even with time lags and other forms of data water-boarding.  There just isn’t any correlation.  Senior NNSA officials, in a conference call, “drew a distinction between the funding level and the number of warheads dismantled.” I see why.  The fact that dismantlement rate does not correlate to funding levels suggests to me that the bulk of the costs are not visible (perhaps to prevent clever people from inferring classified information about dismantlement rates from unclassified budget figures).

Before the mid-1990s, there wasn’t even a separate budget line for dismantlement activities.

When the Office of Technology Assessment asked about dismantlement costs in the early 1990s, they were told the direct costs were about $25-30 million dollars.  (That is about $40-50 million in 2010 dollars, which is line with the 2000-2009 average of $47 million/year for dismantlement activities. How is that for consistent?) OTA was skeptical about that figure, however, noting that “The total operating budgets for the two sites most engaged in dismantlement— Pantex and Y-12—are $240 and $460 million, respectively, for FY 1993. Managers at each of these sites have said that at least two-thirds of their current efforts are devoted to the dismantlement mission or related work.”Today, the operating budgets for PANTEX and Y-12 are about $650 million and $935 million.  If the two-thirds rule still holds, then dismantling warheads is a much more expensive process than the official budget suggests.

Nuclear weapons mean never having to clean-up after yourself.

I mention this for two reasons.  First, it is sort of crazy that we don’t really know how much it costs to dismantle a warhead. (And if we do, that’s a recent phenomenon.)  Second, it is really crazy that the costs associated with dismantlement aren’t part of the original funding.

It turns out that the nuclear weapons complex simply doesn’t do “full cost accounting.”  If you build a municipal solid waste facility, for example, the “back end” costs are part of the consideration.  After all, part of the cost of any activity is cleaning up after one’s self (or one’s generation).  That’s not, apparently, true for nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons facilities.  The cost estimates for RNEP and RRW, for instance, only described what it might cost to make the weapons.  Not what it might cost to take them apart someday.  The same goes for all the big ticket infrastructure items in the Obama Administration’s modernization of the nuclear weapons complex like the Uranium Processing Facility. The clean-up costs get passed along to the future, quite possibly including individuals born after the weapons or facilities were retired.

Of course, that’s bad management and, from a generational perspective, a little selfish. It is irresponsible for policymakers to simply pay for the construction of nuclear weapons and related facilities, while leaving dismantlement and clean-up costs to future generations.

Accounting for the full cost of nuclear weapons is the responsible thing to do.

My friend Joe Cirincione has taken a lot of guff for his claim that the Obama Administration plans to spend $700 billion on nuclear weapons over ten years.  Some people argue that Joe should exclude from his estimate all the “good” money spent on environmental clean-up and nonproliferation. I agree with Joe — environmental remediation and securing nuclear materials are part of the cost of having nuclear weapons.  It wasn’t wrong for Joe to include those costs in his estimate; it was wrong for Cold War policymakers to exclude them and let future generations foot the bill.

Walter Pincus, in October 2010, wrote a long, interesting article about the B53 as a cautionary tale.  “It’s a tale that should have lessons for today as the Obama administration considers spending more than $180 billion over the next decade modernizing the nation’s nuclear stockpile and replacing the intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic submarines and aircraft that would deliver them,” Pincus wrote. “There are steps being taken to win Republican votes for a treaty with Russia designed to reduce nuclear weapons. The lesson: Don’t build more weapons than you need or could use.”

I, too, think the B53 is a cautionary tale but I draw a slightly different lesson. Today, Capitol Hill is in the midst of a furious debate over the same “bargain” that the Administration struck to win Senate ratification of the New START Treaty.  Some people say,”Hey we had a deal!”  Others say, “Hey, we had a lot of deals before you refused to raise the debt ceiling to pay for them.” The discussion gets a little testy.  Members of Congress employ epithets like “irrational” and “unilateral disarmament.”

I don’t intend to wade into this discussion just yet, but I would suggest that  — whether the Administration builds new weapons or new facilities — future  appropriations should include funds set aside to pay for dismantlement and clean-up.  The amount of these funds should, over the course of the lifetime of the asset, sum to the expected liability associated with dismantlement, remediation and so-on.

Of course, that makes nuclear weapons programs more expensive in the short-term, but that is little more than special pleading by one generation.  Over the long-term, such an approach is almost certainly more cost-effective since all costs are considered in the planning phase.  Had policymakers worried about the cost of dismantling the B53 when it was being built, they almost certainly would have made different design choices that would have made dismantling the B53 less expensive and much safer.

That is the lesson I take from the final dismantlement of the B53.