Welcome to A People's Atlas of Nuclear Colorado

To experience the full richness of the Atlas, please view on desktop.
Assembly of a Minuteman missile at Air Force Plant 77, ca. 1960, U.S. Air Force

Issue Brief

The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex

U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Environmental Management, “Closing the Circle on the Splitting of the Atom: The Environmental Legacy of Nuclear Weapons Production in the United States and What the Department of Energy is Doing About It," DOE/EM-0266, January 1996, https://www.energy.gov/sites/default/files/2014/03/f8/Closing_the_Circle_Report.pdf.As part of the nuclear arms race, the U.S. developed a vast research, production, and testing network that came to be known as the “nuclear weapons complex.” This complex comprised dozens of industrial facilities and laboratories across the country. Over half a century of operations, it manufactured tens of thousands of nuclear warheads and detonated more than one thousand. The weapons production infrastructure originated with the Manhattan Project during World War II and evolved through the late 1980s. It employed more than 100,000 contractor personnel at any one time, and at its peak, consisted of sixteen major facilities that spanned the vast land areas of Washington, Idaho, Nevada, and South Carolina. The nuclear complex landscape ranged from desert tracts in Nevada, where weapons were tested, to warehouses in downtown New York City that once stored uranium. Its national laboratories in California and New Mexico designed weapons for production in Washington, Tennessee, Ohio, Missouri, Florida, and Colorado.

Congressional Research Service (Amy F. Woolf and James D. Werner), “The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Overview of Department of Energy Sites,” R45306, March 31, 2021 [last updated], https://fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R45306.pdf.The complex began with the establishment of the Manhattan Engineer District in 1942, which then grew in size and complexity during the Cold War. The term “Manhattan Project” has become a stand-in for the rapid amassing of resources to create a working atomic bomb in a little less than three years. Interest in developing nuclear weapons was apparent shortly before the U.S. entered World War II, and during the 1940s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers managed the construction of monumental plants to enrich uranium, three production reactors to make plutonium, and two reprocessing plants to extract plutonium from the reactor fuel. Essentially the Manhattan Project converted large sections of the country into a nationally distributed production and assembly line of the atomic bomb. Congressional Research Service (Amy F. Woolf and James D. Werner), “The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Overview of Department of Energy Sites,” R45306, March 31, 2021 [last updated], https://fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R45306.pdf.Significant government-owned, contractor-operated sites used during World War II and immediately after included the laboratory at Los Alamos, NM (now known as the Los Alamos National Laboratory), which designed nuclear weapons; the Hanford Engineering Works (later known as the Hanford Reservation or Site) near Richland, WA, which produced plutonium; and three major sites at Oak Ridge, TN that produced uranium enriched with the fissile isotope Uranium-235. The nuclear complex also included hundreds of smaller contractor-owned, contractor-operated facilities that performed key functions, such as radioactive materials operations or nonnuclear materials production and fabrication.

In 1946, the U.S. Congress placed the powers of atomic energy under the civilian control of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which was charged with administering and regulating the production and uses of atomic power. The AEC not only built a stockpile of nuclear weapons but also investigated non-war applications of atomic energy, such as the production of electrical power, as well as conducted studies on the health and safety hazards of radioactive materials.Congressional Research Service (Amy F. Woolf and James D. Werner), “The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Overview of Department of Energy Sites,” R45306, March 31, 2021 [last updated], https://fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R45306.pdf. During the 1950s, the AEC consolidated nuclear weapons production in fewer and much larger government-owned, contractor-operated sites, in order to dramatically increase economies of scale to meet the need of the Cold War stockpile buildup. By late 1952, the AEC brought several new production plants online or they were under construction, and existing plants expanded to provide sufficient capacity for the arms race. These sites included plants at Oak Ridge, TN; Savannah River, SC; Hanford, WA; Fernald and Miamisburg, OH; Rocky Flats, CO; Largo, FL; Albuquerque, NM; and Kansas City, MO.

Black-and-white map of the U.S. nuclear weapons production infrastructure, including dozens of industrial facilities, laboratories, test sites, and waste repositories across the country. Below the territorial map is a diagram that reads left to right of the nuclear fuel cycle, starting with mining and milling, to refining, enriching, and fabricating, to nuclear reactor production and reprocessing, to nuclear component making and assembling, to testing and deploying. Waste storage and disposal is missing from the diagram.
U.S. Department of Energy, Map of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex, January 1996, Office of Environmental Management, “Closing the Circle on the Splitting of the Atom: The Environmental Legacy of Nuclear Weapons Production in the United States and What the Department of Energy is Doing About It,” DOE/EM-0266.

The end of the Cold War led to the decline of the number of sites involved in nuclear warhead production. Congressional Research Service (Amy F. Woolf and James D. Werner), “The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Overview of Department of Energy Sites,” R45306, March 31, 2021 [last updated], https://fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R45306.pdf.Regulatory challenges, health issues at existing nuclear weapons facilities, costs and concerns regarding environment safety, along with growing public scrutiny led to the significant reduction in the number of facilities producing nuclear warheads and materials. In the 1990s, the U.S. withdrew most nonstrategic nuclear weapons from deployment, cancelled several warhead programs, signed arms control agreements that limited the numbers of deployed nuclear forces, and placed a moratorium on U.S. nuclear weapons testing. Reducing the number of warheads in the stockpile channeled resources into sustaining what nuclear weapons were allowed to remain. The nuclear complex has shifted focus away from weapons development and production to the stockpile stewardship program, which cares for and upgrades the stock of weapons. While the U.S. is considered to no longer produce highly enriched uranium and plutonium for use in nuclear weapons, the DOE reuses materials that have been removed from retired weapons, and newly modernized uranium processing facilities are being constructed, such as Bechtel, "Enabling the Future of America's Nuclear Security Mission," https://www.bechtel.com/projects/uranium-processing-facility/.that at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, to replace aged facilities. Congressional Research Service (Amy F. Woolf and James D. Werner), “The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Overview of Department of Energy Sites,” R45306, March 31, 2021 [last updated], https://fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R45306.pdf.The DOE also researches technologies and processes that can prevent and respond to threats of nuclear proliferation, while also addressing the waste and environmental contamination generated during the Cold War, repairing leftover aging infrastructure, and securing legacy materials. When certain plants ceased operations, typically there were no plans in place to shift operations elsewhere or to address significant amounts of nuclear materials that were in the midst of processing activities, posing significant security and safety risks.

Congressional Research Service (Amy F. Woolf and James D. Werner), “The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Overview of Department of Energy Sites,” R45306, March 31, 2021 [last updated], https://fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R45306.pdf.The nuclear weapons complex today—what is now administratively referred to as the “Nuclear Security Enterprise”—consists primarily of nine government-owned, contractor-operated sites in seven states, and a Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear reactor used to produce tritium for nuclear weapons. These facilities include national security laboratories (some with production missions), component fabrication and materials production plants, assembly and disassembly site functions, a massive testing facility that now conducts research and maintains the capacity to resume nuclear explosive testing, as well as administrative field offices and headquarters. Some weapons components must be replaced on a regular basis, while others are produced on an as-needed basis, as part of the nuclear arsenal life extension efforts of the stockpile stewardship program. The geologic waste repository WIPP in New Mexico, which stores plutonium-bearing (transuranic) wastes produced by nuclear weapons facilities, is also essential for maintaining the stockpile.

Responsibility for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex resides in the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Energy (DOE), which was activated in 1977 following the energy crisis and replacement of the AEC with the Energy Research and Development Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.Congressional Research Service (Amy F. Woolf and James D. Werner), “The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Overview of Department of Energy Sites,” R45306, March 31, 2021 [last updated], https://fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R45306.pdf. The DOD develops and deploys missiles and aircraft that deliver nuclear warheads, while the DOE, and its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), oversee the research, development, testing, and acquisition programs that produce and maintain the nuclear warheads. DOE is responsible for storing and securing the nuclear weapons that are not deployed in DOD delivery systems, securing special nuclear materials, dismantling retired warheads and removing them from the stockpile.


Historic Overview of U.S. Nuclear Complex Processes
  • Uranium mining
  • Uranium refining
  • Uranium enrichment: Uranium is processed into low-enriched, highly enriched, and depleted uranium
    • Uranium foundry – uranium gas is converted into metal
    • Fuel and target fabrication – uranium metal is formed into fuel and target elements for reactors
    • Plutonium production reactors – uranium target elements are irradiated to create plutonium
    • Reprocessing to separate plutonium – chemical separation is used to extract plutonium
  • Nuclear components – uranium and plutonium are further processed for warhead triggers
    • Weapons design (and testing)
    • Nonnuclear components Assembly – warhead triggers, neutron generators, electrical and mechanical components assembled into complete warheads
  • Testing
  • Storage / Disposal / Dismantlement

Major U.S. Nuclear Complex Sites (historic and current)
  • Mining (uranium) in UT, CO, WY, AZ, NM
  • Fernald plant, OH – uranium refinery; metal foundry and machining plants
  • Weldon Spring, MO – uranium refinery; metal foundry
  • Portsmouth plant, OH – uranium enrichment
  • Paducah plant, KY – uranium enrichment
  • Oak Ridge reservation, TN – depleted uranium and uranium enrichment; components of highly enriched uranium
  • Hanford site, WA – fuel fabrication, irradiation, and chemical separation; component fabrication; plutonium production; reprocessing to separate plutonium
  • Savannah River site, SC – fuel and target fabrication; irradiation and chemical separation; tritium production
  • Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, ID – chemical separation
  • Rocky Flats, CO – warhead triggers / nuclear components
  • Pantex Plant, TX – high explosives fabrication; final warhead assembly and disassembly
  • Burlington, IA – assembly plant
  • Kansas City plant, MO – electronic, mechanical, and plastic components
  • Mound plant, OH – actuators, ignitors, detonators
  • Pinellas plant, FL – neutron generators
  • Nevada Test Site, NV – testing
  • Amchitka Island, AK – testing
  • Bikini and Eniwetok Atolls, Marshall Islands – testing
  • Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, CA – weapons research and design
  • Los Alamos National Laboratory, NV – weapons research and design
  • Sandia National Laboratories, NM – weapons engineering
  • Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), NM – deep geologic repository of transuranic waste

Sources

Congressional Research Service (Amy F. Woolf and James D. Werner). “The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Overview of Department of Energy Sites.” R45306. Last updated March 31, 2021. Accessed June 3, 2021.  

U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Environmental Management. “Closing the Circle on the Splitting of the Atom: The Environmental Legacy of Nuclear Weapons Production in the United States and What the Department of Energy is Doing About It.” DOE/EM-0266. January 1996. Accessed June 3, 2021.

U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Legacy Management. “A Brief History of the Department of Energy.Energy.gov. Accessed June 3, 2021.

 
Continue on "Production"