Seventy years ago this week, the U.S. Army detonated the first atomic bomb in New Mexico. In the race to build the bomb, the code name “Trinity” was used for the first test of the Manhattan project – a top-secret research and development program that produced nuclear weapons for America and its allies during World War II.
To mark this anniversary, we look at where America’s nuclear program is today and whether the U.S. is living up to its promises not to increase its nuclear capabilities.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.
Daffodil: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Daffodil Altan in for Al Letson with a special edition of the Reveal podcast. Seventy years ago this week the atomic age was born.
Robert: “Now I am the [come death 00:00:16], the destroyer of worlds. I suppose we all thought that one way or another.”
Daffodil: That’s Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atomic bomb talking about the first successful test of a nuclear weapon. Decades later, the U.S. is still producing those bombs. Lawmakers like Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico taught how efficient they’ve become.
Tom: What you’re talking about there is you can have fewer weapons. They’re more accurate. They’re more modern. You reduce the overall stockpile.
Daffodil: The critics worry the weapons have become so accurate that they are more tempting to deploy.
Speaker 1: There is no such thing as a clean nuclear strike.
Speaker 2: It will have less radioactive fallout. Suddenly this weapon becomes a more attractive weapon.
Daffodil: Today on Reveal, is the U.S. violating its pledge to limit nuclear weapons? Seventy years ago this week, the U.S. Army detonated the first atomic bomb in New Mexico, code name Trinity, was the first test of the top secret Manhattan Project in the race to build the atomic bomb.
To mark this anniversary, we’re going to take a look at where America’s nuclear program is today and whether the U.S. is living up to its promises to limit nuclear weapons as laid out by President Obama in 2009.
Pres. Obama: “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Daffodil: That was the president speaking in Prague, Czech Republic six months before winning the Nobel Peace Prize. A year later the Obama administration came out with the details. Here’s his energy secretary at the time, Steven Chu.
Steven: We will not develop new nuclear weapons. The United States will only use nuclear components based on previously tested designs and will not support new nuclear missions, or provide new nuclear capabilities.
Daffodil: This plan, called the Nuclear Posture Review, is the official U.S. statement to the world on nuclear weapons. Over the next five years, the U.S. is on track to create 400 nuclear bombs that the country didn’t have before and spend $11 billion in the process. The U.S. argues they aren’t new nukes, just upgrades. Critics of the program disagree.
Independent journalists, Len Ackland and Burt Hubbard of Rocky Mountain Public Broadcasting have been digging into the story of that bomb. They worked with [Anna Boyco Wyerock 00:02:52] of Rocky Mountain PBS iNews to bring us this story.
Anna: In New Mexico, strong winds can blow for days at a time in the spring whipping the state and U.S. flags on their poles. They’re on the campus of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. Think gleam modern buildings, vast expanses of sage brush, and lots of tumbleweeds. You might have heard of Los Alamos Lab. The nuclear parts of bombs are created there.
Sandia National Laboratories is about an hour and a half south. That’s where they design everything else on the bomb. Inside the labs are high tech machines. Some test nuclear bombs one component at a time like a dime-sized piece of plutonium in one specialized lab called the z machine.
That sound is what happens when 1,000 times the electricity of a lightening bolt squeezes into an area the size of your thumb. The pressure mimics conditions inside a nuclear explosion.
The Sandia Labs are doing work for the U.S. Government, the Department of Energy, and the military. They’re run by a private company, Sandia Corporation, a subsidiary of the defense contractor, Lockheed Martin.
The government pays Sandia Corporation about $1.8 billion a year. A third of that budget goes to one kind of bomb.
Speaker 3: This is a B 61 bomb, a lightweight two-stage thermonuclear weapon.
Daffodil: The B 61;that sound from an old declassified government film. The first version of the B 61 came out in the 1960s. Even back then the bomb was something special.
Speaker 3: It is one of our newest and most sophisticated weapons. Only a few years ago a single weapon design could not have offered the 61’s versatility and compact size.
Daffodil: Today, the U.S. is on the twelfth modification of the B 61 bomb. They call it the B 61 12. In five years, approximately 400 of the new and upgraded B 61 12 bombs will be built. The design of the bombs is significantly different than the previous versions. The upgrade is controversial.
Speaker 3: This is the story of the B 61.
Daffodil: Since the cold war, the U.S. and Russia have been reducing their stockpiles of nuclear weapons from 10s of thousands of weapons to a few thousand. The variety of different makes and models of weapons has gone down too. At the end of the cold war, the U.S. had dozens of different kinds of nuclear weapons. Today, it has seven including long range missiles that can cross the ocean and bombs dropped from an airplane like the B 61.
The B 61 12 raises some big questions. Does it represent a broken promise that the U.S. will not build nuclear weapons with new capabilities? Could the bomb lead other countries to produce more and stronger nuclear weapons? We got a look at the B 61 12 in the windy New Mexico desert.
Phil: This is a mock up of the B 61 mod 12.
Daffodil: Phil Hoover is an engineer and manager at Sandia National Labs. The bomb we’re looking at doesn’t have the nuclear material inside it, but the body of the bomb is the real deal. It’s 12 feel long and sleek, shaped like a torpedo. On the tail there are four angular fins.
Phil: This unit will be shipped off to the Air Force. They will be conducting tests with the various aircraft to understand the performance of the tail.
Daffodil: The other bombs in the B 61 family were designed to fall to the ground, most of them with a parachute. They’re called gravity bombs. The B 61 12 doesn’t need a parachute. Instead, it has a fancy new tail. Inside the tail is a new guidance system.
Hans: What that does is it enables the weapon to steer closer to the facility it’s destroying.
Daffodil: Hans Kristensen is a nuclear weapons expert at the Non-partisan Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., a group that works to limit nuclear weapons. Kristensen is one of a few non-government nuclear arms experts who say the guidance system in the bomb’s tail is much more than an upgrade.
He says the U.S. is actually creating a new type of nuclear weapon and that breaks the promise to stop building new nukes.
Hans: That is a new thing for the American nuclear arsenal because there are no nuclear weapons, nuclear bombs in the U.S. arsenal that have tail kits. There are no guided nuclear gravity bombs in the U.S. arsenal.
Daffodil: When production is finished on the B 61 12 bomb, it will cost at least $11 billion. It’s the most expensive U.S. nuclear bomb ever. The U.S. takes the position that the new B 61 12 bomb is not a new weapon.
Speaker 4 : Senator Udall.
Tom: Thank you very much, madam chair.
Daffodil: Democratic Senator Tom Udall from New Mexico has been pretty outspoken in recent years in favor of the B 61 12.
Tom: This program is important for our national security. I believe the scientists and engineers at our national labs have made great progress on this endeavor. Full funding of the program is important to maintaining this progress. Do you agree that Congress needs to fully fund the B 61 life extension program?
Ernest: Yes, in the ….
Daffodil: Udall was questioning Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in an appropriations hearing last year. Moniz told Senator Udall making the B 61 12 will actually save the country money by reducing the number of bombs the U.S. has to maintain.
Ernest: Actually, on the B 61 I [may just add 00:08:46] one other thing of course. Very important for that is also the way it will lead to a decrease in our number of weapons and ultimately the retirement of the B 83. I think this is a very important program to streamline our stockpile.
Tom: And what you’re talking about there is if you can have fewer weapons, they’re more accurate, they’re more modern than you …
Tom: … reduce the overall stockpile.
Ernest: Fewer models and eliminate some entire systems, yeah, yeah.
Daffodil: Udall is the latest in a long line of New Mexico politicians who champion the nuclear labs that bring big bucks to his state. We repeatedly called Udall for an interview for this story. A spokesperson responded in a telephone interview saying, “The B 61 is a very important program that employs a lot of people in both Sandia and Los Alamos. To let it lapse, Senator Udall believes would be a mistake both for our national security and for the important projects that the scientists at the labs, researchers, and others have been doing.”
After Mississippi, New Mexico is the poorest state in the nation. The nuclear labs, military bases, and their defense contractors are important to the state’s economy. They provide about 24,000 jobs.
Speaker 5: At Lockheed Martin, we live on the cutting edge of physics, material science, technology, and engineering.
Daffodil: That’s a Lockheed Martin online ad. The company has run Sandia Labs through its subsidiary, Sandia Corporation, since the mid 1990s. Lockheed Martin spent $14.6 million lobbying members of Congress last year and contributed $14.4 million to congressional campaigns since 1998.
Department of energy inspector general’s reports have found that the company has been able to secure no bid contracts multiple times since 2003. The inspector general said, “Using government dollars to influence members of Congress to prevent business competition was, ‘inexplicable and unjustified’.”
We repeatedly asked Lockheed for an interview, but a spokesperson declined. Instead, she responded to written questions in a email saying, “The company’s lobbying complies with the law and Lockheed communicates its point of view with members of Congress.”
Pete: I did mention, at least in passing, in these few words about New Mexico and the things ….
Daffodil: Former Senator Pete Domenichi is one of the strongest advocates for the nuclear weapons industry in New Mexico. He even got the nickname Saint Pete. When he retired in 2009 after three decades of service, he gave a shout out to the labs on the Senate floor.
Pete: Matter of fact, people don’t know that there are those two giant nuclear deterrent laboratories in the state of New Mexico, the one they call Los Alamos, and the other one at Sandia. It’s rather phenomenal what they do and what they contribute.
Daffodil: Domenichi helped the labs distance themselves from Energy Department oversight. He pushed for the creation of the semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration in 1999. He also received $78,000 in political contributions from nuclear contractors in New Mexico. Later, Domenichi appeared in a TV ad.
Pete: These are critical times for New Mexico, the United States, and jobs at our national labs.
Daffodil: Heather Wilson was a Republican in Congress from 1998 to 2008.
Pete: I know Heather Wilson. We can trust her to protect these jobs and protect this nation. She’s an independent experienced leader to see us through these difficult times.
Heather: I’m Heather Wilson. I approved this message.
Speaker 6: [Chairlady 00:12:23] from New Mexico is recognized for three minutes.
Heather: Thank you, mister chairman. I want to bring to the attention of House something that is being done in this bill that I think has received ….
Daffodil: Wilson defended funding to the labs when Congress threatened to reduce it.
Heather: There’s a 20% reduction in one year in the engineering laboratory that is solely responsible for over 6,000 parts in our nuclear weapons.
Daffodil: Wilson was a supporter of the B 61 12 program, calling it a key part of deterring nuclear attacks against the United States. From 1998 to 2012, she received more than $250,000 in political donations from nuclear weapons contractors and lab officials. She lost two bids for the Senate; 2012 was the final time. She conceded defeat in front of a crowd of supporters.
Heather: You know, we didn’t win an election.
Daffodil: She did win something else though. The day after Wilson left office in 2009, she got a consulting contract from the Sandia Lab. Inspector general’s reports reveal more. Over the next two years, Lockheed’s Sandia Corporation and the contractors running the Los Alamos lab hired her to help them influence the government and get more business.
The problem was that the contractors used federal funds to pay her; more than $400,000 in federal funds. Eventually, the labs were forced to pay back the misspent money. Neither Wilson nor Dominici would talk to us for this story. The Lockheed communications office responded via email saying, “Sandia has cooperated with the inspector general’s review and will continue to do so.”
New Mexico’s tight relationship with nuclear weapons goes back even further than recent members of Congress. The first nuclear bomb test explosion happened in this state 70 years ago.
Dwayne: Here are the two bombs that we dropped in Japan ….
Daffodil: [Dwayne Hughes 00:14:17] is a docent at the National Nuclear Science Museum in Albuquerque. He showed us around the exhibits.
Dwayne: This is a B 61 mod O, type 3E.
Daffodil: In the corner is the first model of the B 61 bomb with its tail straight up in the air.
Dwayne: These are just models here. When it’s got the insides in it, it gives you a little different feeling. It’s a sobering experience.
Daffodil: The latest version of the B 61, the B 61 12 will take parts from previous modifications and combine them in a new body. On the side of the bomb, there’ll be a hatch like what was on the bomb we saw at the museum.
Dwayne: Yeah, there.
Daffodil: Hughes gave us a look inside. Underneath the hatch is a system where someone with the right equipment and code can set the strength of the bomb blast.
Dwayne: Anyway you can make it do different things for you.
Daffodil: It’s called yield. On the B 61 12, you can dial the yield up, or you can dial it down. At the minimum, it could destroy a building, or an airport. At its maximum, it would be more than three times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The problem some people see with the B 61 12 is not that it would be too powerful.
Hans: There is the issue here of whether we’re creating a weapon that appears to be more user friendly.
Daffodil: Nuclear arms expert Hans Kristensen again. He says the lower level nuclear explosion matched with the precision of the guided tail kit could mean less collateral damage and reduce the human cost of using a nuke again.
Hans: Suddenly, this weapon becomes a more attractive weapon. It’s a cleaner attack so to speak. Not that it’s entirely, of course, clean. There is no such thing as a clean nuclear strike. It will have less radioactive fallout.
Daffodil: Kristensen says, “The military might be tempted to actually recommend it to the president.”
Hans: That’ll still be a huge political hurdle to make that kind of a decision. It might result in his military advisors being more willing to advise him that, “In this case, Mr. President, we have no other ways to destroy this particular target than a nuclear weapon and we have this one that doesn’t produce as much fallout as the others, so you should choose this one.”
Daffodil: An Air Force spokesperson declined an interview, but in a email said, “The B 61 12 allows the president to deter a nuclear attack on the United States and it doesn’t provide new nuclear capabilities.”
As we stood in front of the B 61 12, the typical Albuquerque spring wind swept by us. As large and heavy as the bomb is, its significance is even larger. On one level, it represents the latest stage of nuclear weapons development by scores of scientific minds. Engineer Phil Hoover says, “The B 61 12 bomb is an exciting endeavor for Sandia Labs.”
Phil: We haven’t had this scale of a development going on across the complex in many years. This is a first for the majority of our generation.
Daffodil: It also represents an economic engine for the state of New Mexico, but if it was ever used, it could cause more destruction than anyone’s ever seen.
Anna Boyco Wyerock is a reporter with Rocky Mountain PBS iNews. This story was reported by independent journalist Len Ackland and Burt Hubbard of Rocky Mountain Public Broadcasting. You can read their print story and see our multimedia project at revealnews.org. Check back in with us next Tuesday for another podcast. Al Letson will be back with a look at the hidden dangers that factory workers face from chemicals in our electronic devices.
If you have a minute, let us know what you think of the show. Leave us a review on iTunes. It makes a big difference and helps new listeners find us. You can also tweet us at Reveal or share your thoughts on our Facebook page. Remember, we’re also on the air. Check in with your local public radio station and see what time they’re airing us.
Our lead sound designer and engineer is Jim Briggs. Our editorial director is Robert Salladay and our managing director is Christa Scharfenberg. Suzanne Reber is our executive editor. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music was from Camerado lightening. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Daffodil Altan in for Al Letson. Thanks for listening.