I know, the title is crazy, right?  We all know that Russia is the big #2 nuclear power in the world.  They have thousands of warheads — actually, according to Wiki, about 1,500 actively deployed and 4,500 in standby reserve.  That’s a whole lot of kaboom.  And with things going not so very well in Ukraine lately, Vladimir Putin has been dropping hints that he might unleash the genie on the battlefield.

But the question in the title isn’t facetious and is quite serious.  Allow me to elaborate.  There are two interlocking reasons why I have my doubts that Russia is still really a nuclear power.

First, nuclear weapons have a shelf life.  They aren’t like bullets and chemical artillery shells that you can wrap in grease paper and come back 50 years later and expect they will still work.  They have critical parts made of radioisotopes which decay, and must be serviced to replace those components.  There are probably several service items that have to be maintained but the big one I want to focus on is Tritium gas. 

Fat Man weighed 10,000 pounds, was 6 feet across, and delivered 20 kilotons.  It was certainly bad news to see it coming your way but by modern standards it’s a totally impractical weapon.  Half the weight was the casing and there are improved explosive techniques, so without much effort you could probably pare it down to 4,000 pounds and 3 or 4 feet across.  This is still not a practical design by modern standards.

Modern fission weapons are boosted with Tritium gas.  They have hollow cores, actually “levitated” cores with a hollow sphere of fissionable material surrounding a smaller solid sphere which is suspended by wires in the center.  This is more effective at compression, like using a hammer instead of pushing on a nail.  But it’s not enough to make an atomic bomb the size of a bowling ball.

To do that Tritium gas is pumped into the hollow space within the levitated core.  Multiple sources agree that a modern bomb needs 3 to 4 grams of Tritium to fission properly.  The Tritium fuses as it is compressed, unleashing billions of neutrons instead of the handful delivered by the initiators of Fat Man and Little Boy.  This speeds up the reaction, which is critical for hydrogen bombs because they depend on using the flash of gamma rays from the initial reaction to compress and react the secondary stage before everything is blown apart by the fission trigger’s atomic blast wave.  Yep, it’s like using a stick of a dynamite as a camera flash, and developing the picture before the camera is blown apart.

It’s also critical for tactical battlefield nukes which must be lightweight and portable.  In fact, it’s safe to say that there are no un-boosted nuclear weapons in existence, except possibly for a few prototypes in the hands of almost-nuclear powers like (at one time) South Africa or North Korea.

Tritium has a half-life of 12.5 years, so it goes away over time.  Worse, its decay product is Helium-3, which absorbs neutrons, so it’s critical to refresh the boosting gas periodically.  The exact interval is a closely held secret but there is broad agreement that it is at most every 10 years, and unlikely to be much less than 5 for practical reasons.  Whatever the interval, it’s a simple matter of math to work out that every bomb needs about 0.2 grams of new Tritium per year on average.

Tritium costs USD$30,000 per gram.

This means that, with 4,500 weapons, it costs Russia on the order of USD$30 million per year to maintain its arsenal.  And you don’t get any discounts; even if you don’t keep the reserve weapons prepped you have to have the Tritium on-hand if you want to use them, so whether you put the Tritium in the bombs or not it’s a cost to keep them available for service.  And small battlefield nukes are just as expensive as the hydrogen bombs that can knock down cities.

Now, $30M is a lot of money but I know it’s not a lot of money for Russia, even a Russia that isn’t nearly what the old USSR was.  But it’s a lot of money for an individual if you can manage to steal it.  And that makes what I think of as the macro case for Russia’s nuclear weapons to have been grifted out of workability.

Now let’s look at the micro case.  Assuming a 10-year service interval, Russia needs to service about 2 bombs per workday to keep its arsenal fresh.  The teams which do this probably aren’t large; it doesn’t make sense to send more than 4 people to service something the size of a bowling ball.  And you don’t need a lot of service teams, probably two or three.  This is both very highly skilled and security-cleared work.  There won’t be a big crowd of people doing it.

And every time one of these teams walks in the room to service a bomb, they are bringing a canister probably about the size of a fire extinguisher with around 8 grams of Tritium in it.  (You need to put enough in the bomb so that ten years later, on the next service, it will still have the requisite minimum to go boom if used.)  That’s a quarter million dollars.

Twice a day.

Every work day for 25 years.

In an army where even the MRE’s have been sold on the black market so the ones in the field expired in 2015 and the APC tires are going flat because they’re cheap knockoffs that weren’t maintained properly, is it possible to believe that this service has actually been done?

Oh, I believe it’s been paid for.  I just have trouble imagining that any of that valuable Tritium has actually been put in bombs that, according to conventional doctrine, can never be used unless it’s the end of the world anyway.  Vlad’s posturing aside, Russia’s whole command and control system does seem to conform to the doctrines of MAD, requiring some confirmation of an incoming strike before the nuclear footballs go active to order a response.

Tritium is fungible.  It’s used for many industrial and scientific purposes.  It wouldn’t be hard to fence, or to just not buy in the first place.

The loading teams aren’t the only ones you have to buy off.  There’s also the matter of the gas that’s still in the bombs when they’re serviced, a mixture of Tritium and Helium-3.  The team has to extract that and take it somewhere to be reprocessed, because that’s another hundred thousand dollars or so.  So you also have to buy off the lab guys.  But reprocessing this gas is easy, because Helium and hydrogen-3 are chemically different.  So you burn the gas, release the Helium, and electrolyze the Tritiated water to make pure Tritium again.  It’s not an Oak Ridge scale operation.

Could you buy these guys off, if you were an oligarch in charge of the program?  If you had $30M in annual income from the operation to fund the bribes?  And if there is no realistic chance the theft will ever be detected?  After all, how do you find out that the alpha-emitting gas (alpha particles won’t even go through a sheet of paper much less a bomb casing) inside a bomb isn’t what it is supposed to be until the bomb just doesn’t work?  And if the bomb is being used, conventional wisdom would be that the firing squad is probably the least of your worries.

Edit: several commenters point out that Tritium is a beta, not alpha emitter.  Woops.  It’s also a hard form of radiation to detect though, and the point stands.

I can imagine this grift starting with just some of the bombs.  After all you don’t realistically need 4,500 bombs to deter the world’s other nuclear powers.  China sensibly only ever bothered to build a few hundred; after all what sane leader would risk even a few falling on their major cities or indistrial complexes?  So I can imagine the oligarch saying to himself, we just need the active ones.  Then we really just need a few of those.  Hey, it’s been five… ten… twenty years, and who’s to know?  Every time the team services a bomb with real Tritium that’s a quarter million dollars waiting to be picked up from the table.  Why not pick it up?

Over the years, that’s at least a couple of super yachts and Italian villas for all the mistresses.  You gotta keep your priorities straight.


2034 votes Show Results

Do Russia’s nuclear weapons still work?

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Do Russia’s nuclear weapons still work?

Of course they all do
32 votes
Enough to be very dangerous do
933 votes
A few do, but who knows which ones?
925 votes
No, they’ve all been converted to yachts and villas
144 votes

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