Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


The Insitute for Energy and Environmental Research released a report on 29 November 2005 (written by two scientists, Brice Smith and Arjun Makhijani), detailing the amount of weapons-grade plutoinum that is in the soil or being stored as waste at Los Alamos.

It contained this startling claim:

There are major discrepancies in the materials accounts for weapons plutonium in Los Alamos Waste. An analysis of official data indicates that the unaccounted for plutonium amounts to at least 300 kilograms [emphasis mine] and could be over 1,000 kilograms, though the higher figure appears unlikely.

FYI, 300kg of separated weapons-grade plutonium is probably enough for about 50 Nagasaki type bombs (6kg a piece)—or enough to travel back in time (below). How useable the unaccounted plutoinum is “out-of-the-box” is unclear. Plutonium being disposed can be mixed with various other substances or embedded in ceramic or glass. Anyone wanting to use the plutonium in a bomb would need to separate it.

Marty, you’re not thinking fourth dimensionally!

As Brice and Arjun note, the fact that there are discrepencies is not new. In 1996, a memo, written by Admiral Richard Guimond, then Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management, and Everet Beckner, then Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs, was circulated at DOE asking various site to reanalyze their plutonium accounting files to find the source of the mismatch. A task force was set up, but never reported its findings, at least publicly.

Enter IEER, using public data on the composition and radioactivity of waste piles at various DOE sites, Brice and Arjun have estimated the amount of plutonium that is actually in the waste piles. There is not enough byproducts of plutonium in the piles nor is there enough radioactivity to account for all the plutonium. This implies that some plutonium is missing.

You may be worried that freedom-hatin’ terrorists may get their hands on the material. However, The Onion, again always so timely, says their hands are full (nods to Ben Rusek for the link).


TTV in all its infrared nerdporn glory …

On 17 November 2005 the Missile Defense Agency conducted Flight Test Maritime 04-2 (FTM-2)—a test of its Aegis based missile defense system. A SM-3 interceptor did what its name implies and hit a dummy warhead jettisoned from a Medium Range Target (MRT) vehicle.

This test is considered a first because the interceptor was tasked with hitting a separated payload target, as opposed to just a missile.

Much is known about the MRT’s predecessor, the Target Test Vehicle (TTV)—also known as the Aries (right). Information on its flight path and main characteristics (it is based on a Minotaur booster motor) are publicly available.

David Wright, from UCS, analyzed a 2002 test of the Aegis which involved a SM-3 missile intercepting an Aries target. David’s main criticism of the test was that the target was very large, since the warhead did not separate from the booster:

A key finding is that the target used in the test was considerably larger than important targets that [the system] is presumably being developed to engage, such as a warhead from a North Korean Nodong missile.

Using a larger target increases the range at which the Aegis SPY-1 radar can detect and track the target, and provides a larger target for the kill vehicle to impact. In the test, the kill vehicle apparently collided with the booster of the target missile, and would not have destroyed a warhead on the missile.

All this is supposed to change with the new separating MRT vehicle. The warhead will separate and the target will be more “realistic” than a large missile. However, unlike the Aries/TTV, details on the MRT are not as well known.

One interesting tidbit is that the MRT is designed to be launchable from the ground, from the sea, and from the back of a C-17 Globemaster III (see the enormous plane at right).

This is all part of Lockheed Martin’s Flexible Targets Family approach for MDA. Sort of like Gumby’s family …

MDA tested the MRT in April (from a C-17) and Orbital, the manufacturer of the MRT, happily let us know that the test was a success and something about the MRT rocket motor:

The MRT integrates a Castor IVB rocket motor produced by Alliant TechSystems (ATK), which Orbital has integrated and launched on several recent and past missions for MDA.

The Castor IV family of motors are probably best known as the booster rockets seen on the side of some Delta and Atlas launch vehicles. Unfortunetly Thiokol’s Castor website disappeared when they were bought by ATK, however the specs of the Castor IVB continue to float around.

What’s missing from these specs however are the burnout speed of the rocket and therefore the speed of the separated warhead. This however can be computed using the rocket equation. We get a burnout velocity of around 5.5 km/s…almost twice that of the Minotaur based Aries TTV. In the actual test this velocity depended on a number of things including the mass of the payload and whether or not the maximum amount of fuel was used.

Also new for the MRT is a sensor package on the rocket including cameras, built by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab that are able to view the intercept of the dummy warhead (right).

The APL press release describes the sensor package in some detail:

The payload consists of three fundamental parts – forward- and aft-looking sensors, and an electronics box.

The forward-looking sensor package consists of a radiometer, spectrometer, debris impact sensor and a visible-light camera to collect, for the first time, in situ measurements of an Aegis BMD intercept viewed from the target’s separated booster section. The target-based sensors provide closer, clearer observations acquired at a different angle than those obtained by airborne- and ground-based platforms, which are often subject to transmission losses.

In case you are interested, MDA was kind enough to record both the launch of the interceptor from the USS Lake Erie and the launch of the target (left) from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, located on the Hawaiian island of Kauaʻi.

Zooooooooom! A video of the intercept can be found here