Nuclear Weapon Characteristics Handbook, September 1990

Nuclear Weapon Characteristics Handbook, September 1990


The Nuclear Weapon Characteristics Handbook, dated September 1990, was first requested in June of 2009, and it was not until February of 2017 that it was finally released. Nearly EIGHT years passed from the point of requesting, to actually receiving the below document.

The following was written by A. Nareth as an introduction to the document found below:

For more than forty years, deterrence has been the cornerstone of US defense policy, consisting of a stockpile of nuclear weapons and the missiles} aircraft, and artillery to deliver them. Sandia National Laboratories’ special mission, as part of the Department of Energy, is to ensure that nuclear warheads meet the highest standards of operational capability, reliability, safety, and control.

With this review, we discuss Sandia’s role in weaponizing nuclear explosives, the historical development of the stockpile and our monitoring and evaluation activities. We include a discussion of the important safety and use control aspects of nuclear warhead engineering. Our net assessment concludes that today’s stockpile is effective and reliable but that important work remains to be done to make it as safe and secure as evolving technologies permit.

In its history, the stockpile has been shaped by strategic doctrine that has evolved from massive retaliation to flexible response as the intemational situation warranted. Until recent years, arms control and strategic defense have not been major components of strategic design because of technical limitations. Today it is dear that deterrence, as represented by the stockpile, will be bolstered by new aspects of national security policy that are now technically or politically viable.

It is fair to assume that the stockpile will not grow; indeed, it is quite possible that new arms reduction agreements may reduce the number and types of weapons deployed. However, the responsibilities associated with maintaining a competent nuclear weapon arsenal will continue to be formidable. Its deterrent value must be sustained. Safety is of paramount importance: a single accident involving a nuclear explosion or dispersal of nuclear material would be a catastrophe, and could badly damage or terminate public support for a nuclear deterrent. In addition, we will continue to pursue improvements in command and control: the President must have flexible, exclusive, and unencumbered command of our nuclear forces.

Ensuring quality effort and product is a major initiative for the Laboratories. Quality is conformance to requirements … in the case of nuclear weapons, ensuring quality means meeting requirements of performance, schedule, and cost. We are striving to improve our designs and the manufacturing procedures for the nuclear weapons complex so that we do meet these goals, and we will increase our efforts to streamline some of these processes.

One aspect of nuclear weapon quality that is of particular concern is reliability. Assessing nuclear weapon reliability is an evolving process. Our assessments are updated through periodic laboratory and flight testing of samples of each weapon in the stockpile- a process allowing us to see the effects of new technologies and more demanding requirements. We recognize that smaller and safer weapons, and those with greater military capabilities, may be less reliable if we are not vigilant throughout each weapon’s lifetime- through development, production, deployment, and retirement. I am personally committed to continuous improvement of quality to ensure that reliability is high and is in balance with safety and control.

The stockpile of the first forty years of the nuclear age was designed during a cold war. During the next forty years it must be designed to foster stability, nonproliferation, and peace. I believe our policy makers may begin to think of the stockpile not in terms of deterring war, but in terms of maintaining peace. Modern weapons must be militarily appropriate, safe, secure, and survivable. A “peacetime stockpile” must offer an appropriate level of deterrence and fit with arms control, verification, strategic defense, and conventional force strategy as part of an integrated national security posture.

Declassified Document

 Nuclear Weapon Characteristics Handbook, September 1990 [90 Pages, 18.5MB]



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