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U.S. Nuclear Warhead Numbers Are Kept Secret

The U.S. government announced Thursday that it has increased the rate at which it is dismantling nuclear warheads. The actual number of weapons taken apart is classified, however, as are most numbers associated with the stockpile. Some officials and lawmakers are trying to change that.

Thomas D'Agostino, an official at the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, oversees the dismantlement work. He says taking apart a nuclear weapon requires time and care.

"I don't want to make it seem this is just grab your Phillips screwdriver and start unscrewing things and taking them apart," D'Agostino said. "These are warheads that have conventional high explosives. We worry about lightning. We worry about static electricity. And we are not about to tolerate any errors in this area."


D'Agostino said crews have taken apart 50 percent more nuclear warheads in the past eight months than they dismantled all year in 2006. He said he couldn't be more specific.

"I am a bit frustrated I can't tell you the details," D'Agostino said. "I think it would be a good thing for you to hear them." He said the numbers reflect that the Cold War is over and that the stockpile is shrinking.

Some lawmakers have expressed frustration about the policy that keeps the numbers secret: It dates back to the 1990s. U.S. Rep. David Hobson (R-OH) said at a Congressional hearing that he wants the figures made public in order to facilitate open debate about what the total number of warheads should be.

"I've been pushing this for years, and the administration has resisted. I don't know why," Hobson said. "I suspect our potential adversaries know the number of U.S. nuclear warheads much better than do the members of Congress. I think I know the number, but I can't talk about it."

The Department of Defense issued a statement to NPR, saying, "The basis for the security requirement ... is to deny militarily useful information to potential or actual enemies, to enhance the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence and to contribute to the security of nuclear weapons, especially against threats of sabotage and terrorism."


But that policy hasn't stopped independent analysts from trying to pin down the numbers.

"I think we have approximately 10,000, and we feel rather confident based on years of analysis that that's pretty close to the real number," said Robert Norris, senior research analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C.

Norris said people who are in the know sometimes leak information. Early stockpile figures are public.

"In 1959, 1960, the United States was producing over 7,000 weapons a year. This is, you know, about 25 a day," Norris said.

In 1945, there were two weapons. The stockpile peaked in the 1960s around 32,000 warheads, Norris said.

President Bush has ordered that the arsenal he started with be cut in half by the year 2012. According to Norris' figures, that will leave about 5,000 in the stockpile.

Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists collaborates with Norris and says the announcement Thursday means the U.S. is probably dismantling a few hundred warheads a year.

"One of the ridiculous things we've run into is, just seven years ago, you could call up the Pantex plant down in Texas and say, 'So, how many weapons did you dismantle last month?' and they would give you the number because it wasn't classified," Kristensen said. "And, you know, I find this so Alice in Wonderland — suddenly, numbers that are very important to assure other countries that we're going in the right direction about dismantling nuclear weapons cannot be told anymore."

D'Agostino said he's been told the secrecy is needed precisely because the stockpile is getting smaller. The concern now, he said, is that adversaries could use the numbers to puzzle out detailed information.

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Corrected: June 11, 2007 at 4:26 AM PDT
The radio version of this story incorrectly reports Robert Norris' estimate of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. According to Norris' figures, cutting the stockpile in half would leave about 5,000 in the stockpile.