Russ Wellen

Baby Boomers: as numerous as they are narcissistic (their rep, anyway). They were once synonymous with the emergence of the phenomenon of The Teenager as well as youth culture in general. It should come as no surprise then that Baby Boomers, many of whom are entering old age, are integral to the newfound prominence of geriatrics and eldercare. Meanwhile, the culture shift from youth to old age that parallels the life cycle of the Baby Boomers is mirrored in a similar shift in things that go boom — nuclear weapons.

In a recent Warscapes blog post titled Domesticating Nuclear Weapons, I wrote about an August 2004 American Ethnologist article. Anthropologist Joseph Masco explained how the abolition of above-ground nuclear testing meant that nuclear detonations were no longer being witnessed live and processed internally to often disturbing effect, as with some of the Manhattan Project scientists. As a result, he wrote, the Bomb became less a devastating weapon to nuclear scientists than a science experiment.

A former deputy director of nuclear technologies at Los Alamos National Laboratory that Masco quoted seemed to mirror how the Baby Boomers are beginning to “own” old age.

For fifty years Nuclear Weapons program relied on nuclear testing … to guarantee a safe and reliable stockpile. New weapons were designed, tested, and manufactured on a regular basis. If the … program discovered a defect, its significance could be established by nuclear testing [and] repaired by the production complex. Even if the defect was not significant the weapon was likely to be replaced by a more modern system in only a few years. As the stockpile ages far beyond its anticipated life, we can expect a variety of defects … This means that weapons gerontology is far more challenging than designing new weapons.

Masco himself wrote:

Instead of continuing the evolution of the bomb through new warhead designs, weapons scientists have become gerontologists, involved in studying how nuclear weapons age. Whereas the Cold War experimental regime was based on the planned obsolescence of each weapon type … [today’s] program is designed to keep the current U.S. nuclear arsenal viable indefinitely.

Like Baby Boomers, in just a few decades nuclear weapons went from planned obsolescence — a young man and woman’s game — to gerontology. Furthermore:

If the Cold War program speeded up time through constant production, as scientists rushed from one test to the next, the immediate post-Cold War project became to slow down time, to prevent nothing less than aging itself.

Can you think of a more apt description of Baby Boomers? Alas, “the inability to stop time completely” at Los Alamos National Laboratory (the subject of Masco’s study) “promoted ‘aging’ as the major threat to U.S. national security after the Cold War. The arms race may be on hold … but a new race against time is at the center of the laboratory’s nuclear mission [to] endlessly defer a future of aged, and perhaps derelict, U.S. nuclear machines.” Masco further elaborated:

The vulnerable body [is part of] the discourse of Los Alamos scientists. But the body in question is not the human body threatened by the exploding bomb; it is the bomb itself as fragile body, exposed to the elements, aging, and increasingly infirm. Within this post-Cold War program of weapons gerontology, nuclear weapons have “birth defects,” required “care and feeding,” “get sick” and “go to the hospital,” get regular “checkups,” “retire,” and have “autopsies.” Individual weapons systems are now undergoing formal “life extension” projects, and new regimens … extend the viability of the oldest weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal past their planned deployment.

As with aging Baby Boomers, the goal is to make nuclear weapons “forever young.” In fact, counter to the letter and spirit of U.S. nuclear-weapons policy, “stockpile stewardship” and “life extension” are being used for cover behind which existing bombs are being re-designed.

In November 2013 at Der Spiegel, Markus Becker and Otfried Nassauer wrote about upgrades to the B-61 series nuclear weapons program, a warhead conceived — like many Baby Boomers — in the 60s.

… experts view the B-61-12 as far more than a pure life-extension program or slightly upgraded version of the old bombs. Instead, they consider it to be, de facto, a weapon with new military capabilities

… the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), itself admits that 15 of the 16 planned upgrades are not aimed at improving security and avoiding obsolescence, but rather an increase in performance. According to [Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists], that shows that performance has been the “driving factor” behind the modernization program.

As Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists wrote:

Congress rejected Air Force requests for new, low-yield, precision-guided nuclear weapons [such as the B61-12] in the 1990s because of concern that such weapons would be seen as more usable than larger strategic warheads.

As with drones, to military planners, precision covers a multitude of (policy) sins by reducing the amount of collateral damage caused by more powerful weapons. But the temptation to use them is considered destabilizing to the balance of power (or, as some call it, terror). Today, higher-yield nuclear weapons, with their civilization-threatening implications, are generally thought of as for deterrence only and best left on the shelf.

Of the B61-12, Kristensen previously wrote:

That’s quite an achievement for a weapon that just a few years ago was described simply as a refurbishment of four old B61s. Now the B61-12 has become the all-in-one nuclear bomb on steroids.

In the same vein, some Baby Boomers employ existing anti-aging measures such as joint replacement and hormone treatment, and hope to avail themselves of future developments such as tissue rejuvenation with stem cells, molecular repair, and organ replacement.

In other words, like Baby Boomers, nuclear weapons long ago wore out their welcome, but they’re not going anywhere soon. 

Russ Wellen, who serves as the editor of the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points, is a student of the metaphysics of nuclear weapons.

Image via NPR