Retrotechtacular: Some Days You Just Can’t Get Rid Of A Nuclear Bomb

It may seem a bit obvious to say so, but when a munition of just about any kind is designed, little thought is typically given to how to dispose of it. After all, if you build something that’s supposed to blow up, that pretty much takes care of the disposal process, right?

But what if you design something that’s supposed to blow up only if things go really, really wrong? Like nuclear weapons, for instance? In that case, you’ll want to disassemble them with the utmost care. This 1993 film, produced by the US Department of Energy, gives a high-level overview of nuclear weapons decommissioning at the Pantex plant in Texas. Fair warning: this film was originally on a VHS tape, one that looks like it sat in a hot attic for quite a few years before being transferred to DVD and thence to YouTube. So the picture quality is lousy, in some points nearly unwatchably so. Then again, given the subject matter that may be a feature rather than a bug.

Despite the video quality, there’s a lot to learn from this film. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of nuclear weapons is how boring they look. The film is focused on the B61 thermonuclear gravity bomb, and to the untrained eye, it just looks like any other conventional bomb. We suppose that’s partly by design; it simply wouldn’t do to have a big “Plutonium Onboard” placard on the side. Also of interest is the fact that the “physics package” of the weapon, which only occupies a fraction of the space that the bomb’s parachute claims, is transported to a reinforced bunker for disassembly. Called a “Gravel Gertie,” the structure is a partially buried reinforced concrete room with about 20′ (7 meters) of loose gravel over it. The idea is to contain a conventional explosion, not a nuclear one, of course; if a little bit of gravel could defend against a nuke, there wouldn’t be that much to worry about.

We’re sure the film is heavily sanitized of any classified material, and it was likely well-choreographed to make it look like dismantling nuclear weapons is no big deal. But honestly, what we see in terms of tools and procedures doesn’t look all that different from what we see in aviation maintenance. And the exploded — ahem — shots of all 6,000 parts in the bomb are pretty sweet.

And bonus footage: if you’ve ever wondered how nuclear materials are transported around the country, check out the second video below, which is a training film for the Office of Secure Transport, the agents who drive the armored semi trucks needed for the job.

[Stephen Walters] spotted this one for us. Thanks for the tip!

19 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Some Days You Just Can’t Get Rid Of A Nuclear Bomb

  1. A friend of mine did his PhD thesis on modeling how a mistake that caused the conventional explosives to explode would propagate through the decommissioning site, where the shock wave would be lethal and where it wouldn’t, and how to build the site to reduce the area where it was lethal. (His thesis is classified.) Based on what he was talking about, my impression was that it wasn’t quite as trivial as this presentation makes it look, at least from a risk perspective.

  2. Something heavy dropped on workers seems the greatest lethality risk, followed by conventional high explosive detonation and resulting scattering of radioactive debris, fire, or inadvertent exposure to plutonium in the trigger while disassembling the physics package. KA-freaking-BOOM isn’t on the menu. It takes too fine timing to get the physics package to go off without the proper execution of the firmware in the supporting electronics.

    1. Yeah, the chances of an accidental nuclear explosion are essentially zero. The chance of a bunch of nasty radioactive garbage scattered around by HE is greater than zero.

      I love the euphemism of “the physics package” by the way. I mean every weapon is a kind of physics package, but this is THE physics package.

  3. how about the mind boggling insanity in normalising and cutsifying talking about weapons of mass destruction
    maybe next time work in something with nukes
    and 3d printed kittens
    ya!,nothing smooths over the end of civilisation
    like some lucky kitty charms

  4. so in how far is any of this unwatchable?
    The quality of the first video is pretty much superb (for VHS. OK there was a bit of chroma flickering in the very beginning, which is kinda normal), the second video could have used a higher bitrate, many details were lost in the digital compression (and some imagery was overexposed, but that’s a fault of the camera person).
    I’m used to frequent drop-outs and chroma noise on most of my tapes…

    Also helps if you don’t watch Standard Definition (or below – which VHS is) in full screen on anything bigger than 26 inches.
    i FeEl OfFeNdEd!!!1!eleven! (hey, I’m a hard core analog TV fetishist, I still watch analog video regularly on CRT TVs)

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.