The last of the nation’s most powerful nuclear bombs — a weapon hundreds of times stronger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima — is being disassembled nearly half a century after it was put into service at the height of the Cold War.
The B53 with a yield of 9 megatons of TNT (38 PJ) was one of the most powerful nuclear weapons ever built by the United States, and was one of the last very high-yield thermonuclear bombs in U.S. service. The Mk 53 entered production in 1962 and was built through June 1965. About 340 bombs were built. It entered service aboard B-47 Stratojet, B-52 Stratofortress, and B-58 Hustler bomber aircraft in the mid-1960s. From 1968 it was redesignated B53.
After a B-53-equipped Titan missile exploded in Arkansas, many of the B53s were disassembled in the 1980s, but a significant number remained in the U.S. arsenal until they were retired from the stockpile in 1997. In 2010 authorization was given to disassemble the 50 bombs at the Pantex plant in Texas.
The final components of the B53 bomb will be broken down at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, the nation’s only nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility. The completion of the dismantling program is a year ahead of schedule, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, and aligns with President Barack Obama’s goal of reducing the number of nuclear weapons.
First put into service in 1962, when Cold War tensions peaked during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the B53 weighed 10,000 pounds and was the size of a minivan. According to the American Federation of Scientists, it was 600 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II. The B53 was designed to destroy facilities deep underground, and it was carried by B-52 bombers.
The weapon is considered dismantled when the roughly 300 pounds of high explosives inside are separated from the special nuclear material, known as the pit. The uranium pits from bombs dismantled at Pantex will be stored on an interim basis at the plant.
The material and components are then processed, which includes sanitizing, recycling and disposal, the National Nuclear Security Administration said last fall when it announced the Texas plant’s role in the B53 dismantling.
The plant will play a large role in similar projects as older weapons are retired from the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
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