U.S. Halts Dismantling of Old Nuclear Weapons, Seeing Potential Use Against Killer Asteroids Headed for Earth
Nuclear warheads developed decades ago in anticipation of a nuclear Armageddon with the former Soviet Union are being kept in case they’re needed to ward off a different kind of catastrophe: asteroids.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency charged with maintaining the nation’s nuclear arsenal, is hanging on to some older warheads that have been scheduled for destruction in the event they can be launched into space to destroy asteroids on a planetary collision course. This was buried inside a report by the Government Accountability Office on NNSA operations that says the warheads, or at least their components, including uranium cores, are being kept around “pending a senior-level government evaluation of their use in planetary defense against earthbound asteroids.”
The idea is not unlike the plot of the 1998 summer blockbuster “Armageddon,” in which the U.S. government sent a team into space with a nuclear weapon to blast apart an asteroid heading towards earth.
The Wall Street Journal reported scientists have not spotted any immediate threat from asteroids. But since there are an estimated 100,000 asteroids 50 meters or larger in size in the solar system, some officials think it’s better to be safe than sorry. After all, it would take only a hurtling space rock 100 meters in diameter to completely destroy a city the size of Washington, D.C.
Last year, the world got a glimpse of what even a small asteroid can do when one 20 meters in size rocketed over Russia and blew up in the atmosphere with a force equal to 400 tons of TNT, or about the size of a warhead on a Trident strategic missile. The explosion was deafening and shattered windows in many communities. Hundreds were injured, mostly by broken glass.
To Learn More:
U.S. Takes Asteroid Threat Seriously (by John Emshwiller, Wall Street Journal)
The U.S. Is Saving Nukes So It Can Blow Up Asteroids (by Tim Fernholz, The Atlantic)
Nuclear Weapons: Actions Needed by NNSA to Clarify Dismantlement Performance Goal (Government Accountability Office)
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