Did America Forget How to Make the H-Bomb?

Posted on May 15, 2009 

Did America Forget How to Make the H-Bomb?

For decades nonproliferation experts have argued that, once unleashed, the nuclear genie cannot be stuffed back in the bottle. But they probably didn’t consider the possibility that a country with nuclear bomb-making know-how might forget how to manufacture a key atomic ingredient. Yet that’s precisely what happened to the US recently, and national security experts say this institutional memory lapse raises serious questions about the federal government’s nuclear weapons management.

The US government’s Fogbank snafu has stunned nuclear policy experts. “What the story ought to tell people is that the institutions that we’ve built to oversee development and maintenance of our nuclear weapons are incompetent,” says Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the nuclear strategy and nonproliferation initiative at the New America Foundation, who has written about the episode.

So how did America’s three nuclear weapons design laboratories and four nuclear weapons manufacturing plants—the institutions collectively known as the nuclear weapons complex—simply forget how to make a crucial component of one of the military’s most important warheads? “It seems like it was a case of ten-year-itis,” says Phil Coyle, a former assistant secretary of defense who worked in the nuclear weapons complex for 33 years. “Ten years go by and people forget things that they used to know how to do.”

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