But after the manufacturer of the circuits went bankrupt and its machines were no longer available, the Sandia engineers had to become even more innovative.
“We bought three or four on eBay,” Gilbert Herrera, who manages Sandia’s microsystems research and facilities, said as he stood on the work floor recently. “For $100,000 apiece.”
The B61 was once heralded as a cornerstone of the country’s air-delivered nuclear force. Developed as a major deterrent against Soviet aggression in Europe, it is a slender gray cylinder that weighs 700 pounds and is 11 feet long and 13 inches in diameter. It can be delivered by a variety of aircraft, including NATO planes, anywhere in the world.
Now, nearly five decades after the first version rolled out of Los Alamos National Laboratory 100 miles north of here, age threatens to make the workhorse of the arsenal unreliable. So the B61 is poised to undergo a major renovation to extend its life span, a project that could cost as much as $10 billion, according to the Pentagon, or about $25 million for each of the 400 or so left in the arsenal.
The current estimate is more than double some early projections, so high that the Federation of American Scientists, a respected Washington disarmament think tank, dubbed it the “gold-plated nuclear bomb project.”
The Obama administration and Congress have pushed the program forward despite the enormous cost of refurbishing such complex weapons and over the strenuous objections of some nuclear strategists, who say the threat the B61 was designed to counter disappeared with the Cold War. Advocates, including the Obama administration, argue that the bomb is still essential to U.S. national security. In their view, the B61s deployed in Europe are the most concrete example of shared responsibility among the NATO countries, providing the indispensable psychological glue that binds the often-fractious alliance.
The B61s represent less than 10 percent of the 5,113 bombs and missiles that make up the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In the coming decade, updating vast elements of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex — from weapons to delivery systems to the labs and plants that make and test them — is expected to cost at least $352 billion, according to the Stimson Center, another nonpartisan Washington think tank.
Eighty percent of the stockpile’s bombs and missiles are scheduled for major renovations similar to those for the B61. The National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the complex, predicts that the work will take 25 years of intense effort by the country’s leading physicists, material scientists, engineers and computer programmers. The NNSA has not put a cost on the total weapons overhaul, but it is certain to top $20 billion, according to preliminary government figures.