The Sciences

Getting Personal: How I Dismantled the World’s Deadliest Weapon

Phil Hoover is in the bomb business. But these days he’s a bomb unbuilder, eliminating nukes to comply with arms treaties.

By Phil HooverFeb 20, 2012 6:00 AM


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In October Sandia National Laboratories engineer Phil Hoover dismantled the U.S. arsenal’s last B53, a 9-megaton bomb 600 times as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima. Hoover talked to DISCOVER about taking apart America’s most powerful weapon.

Illustration by Zina Saunders

The B53 was big and heavy, about the size of a minivan and 10,000 pounds. We needed 130 engineers and scientists from across the nuclear weapons enterprise to take it apart. Even though the B53 was designed to be rather easily disassembled, it still took us about two weeks per bomb.

All of the nuclear explosive disassembly was done in one well-lit, clean, and orderly room large enough to hold a Volkswagen van. We wore cover­alls, safety glasses, gloves, safety shoes, and dosimeters to track radiation exposure. Typically three or four people at a time actually did the work. There wasn’t much small talk—the operation required focus.

After separating the large external case, we extracted the many individual components by removing screws and bolts and disconnecting cables. Some components were so heavy that we had to use cranes to remove them. The most important step was separating the fissionable material from the conventional high explosives that trigger the nuclear reaction. We placed a lot of the nuclear elements in storage within the Pantex facility [the Texas plant operated by B&W Pantex, the company that helps manage the United States’ nuclear stockpile], and we took the explosives to Los Alamos National Laboratory for evaluation.

For 25 years, my job has been to work with Sandia and Los Alamos to design and produce nuclear weapons. Lately I’ve gone in the opposite direction and dismantled them. Personally, I agree with getting rid of the world’s nuclear weapons, but I think the United States should be last.

As told to Michael Rosenwald

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