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US is Hoarding Nuclear Weapons for a Real 'Armageddon'

Oct 02, 2014 10:53 AM EDT
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Government auditors were recently looking into why exactly the United States is falling behind in disarming itself of its old nuclear weapon surplus, and they stumbled upon an unusual excuse: asteroid defense.
(Photo : Don Davis/NASA)

Government auditors were recently looking into why exactly the United States is falling behind in disarming itself of its old nuclear weapon surplus, and they stumbled upon an unusual excuse: asteroid defense.

According to a report detailing an audit of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) conducted earlier this year, US officials are hoarding some of its enriched uranium components - canned subassemblies (CSAs) - just in case they need to pull a real-world recreation of scenes straight out of the movie Armageddon.

"NNSA officials told us that CSAs associated with a certain warhead indicated as excess in the 2012 Production and Planning Directive and being retained in an indeterminate state pending senior-level government evaluation of their use in planetary defense against earthbound asteroids," the report reads.

And while the NNSA had initially scheduled these same "excess" CSAs to be dissembled by 2015, they have since been identified as an "irreplaceable national asset."

If there's anything Hollywood ever put on the silver screen that could actually happen, Armageddon certainly wouldn't be on the top of the list. However, NASA has confirmed in past studies that if a dangerous asteroid were safely broken into smaller pieces, it could be rendered harmless, as these smaller bits would just burn up in Earth's atmosphere. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Wiki CC0 - State Farm via Flickr crawl)

And while, unlike the movie, NASA won't be sending a rag-tag bunch of misfit oil drillers to do the job, they have been looking into how to "capture" and eventually land on an asteroid - a mission that might take place as early as 2019.

But why the contingency plan in the first place? Doesn't NASA have a program that watches for these things? Yes, but a recent audit of the Near-Earth Object  (NEO) tracking program showed that while our experts are great at tracking Armageddon-sized asteroids that could destroy life as we know it, they are actually really bad at catching sight of the medium-sized ones, which are strong enough to punch through our atmosphere and injure several thousand people. The NEO program detects only about one in 10 in time to literally brace for impact.

Still, critics of this nuclear defense idea are saying its fantastical and potentially just a facade.

Jay Melos, a planetary studies expert at Purdue University, recently told The Wall Street Journal that this all may just be "an excuse for keeping the nuclear arsenal together."

He added that NASA had been looking at other asteroid defense concepts for some time, with even a successful test of the Deep Impact spacecraft, which literally rams asteroids out of the way, back in 2005.

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