The Cold War ends … now what?

Posted: February 7, 2013 - 6:07pm | Y-12 Report | Volume 9, Issue 2 | 2013

Y‑12 machined precise finished surfaces (mirrors) in the 1970s. Precision machining capabilities like this helped give the U.S. an edge during the Cold War.

If you met former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, what would you ask him? Y‑12 Facility Specialist Martha Polston had the rare opportunity to meet Gorbachev a decade after the Soviet Union had formally dissolved in 1991 and the Cold War had ended. “Meeting him face to face was a true privilege,” she said. “The intensity of his personality is commanding, yet he is approachable. He seemed to genuinely embrace his role as a 'statesman' after having to let go of the 'power' of world leader.”

In 2001 Polston and her husband, Steve, attended a conference of the Gorbachev Foundation of North America, an organization created by Gorbachev and focused on strengthening and spreading democracy and economic liberalization. During a roundtable discussion, the Polstons asked Gorbachev why he had decided to cease the nuclear arms race with the U.S.

Gorbachev's basic response was “economics,” Polston said. The communist country's fragile economy could neither sustain the weapon-for-weapon production level nor support a technological match to President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars. Continuing the arms race surely would have resulted in economic collapse and eventual civil war.

Gorbachev's decision had a pivotal effect on Y‑12.

With the Cold War's demise and ensuing arms control treaties, the U.S. defense mission changed. “Weapons production stopped. Some builds were stopped before completion,” said Tom Fisher, director of Stockpile Programs. Y‑12's massive 24-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week manufacturing effort to support the military buildup was now unwarrantable. Yet the U.S. defense posture of having a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent remained. Developing a strategy to maintain nuclear capabilities while adjusting to the changing global environment became the focus.

Y‑12's unique capabilities and skills and unparalleled experience with highly enriched uranium manifested during the Cold War; so the question of what to do with the work force, facilities, laboratories and equipment had to be addressed. “Y‑12 had to adapt to remain a viable production facility,” said Glenn Pfennigwerth, Engineering.

Work for others

Before the Cold War's end, Y‑12 had successfully worked with other government agencies and private industry on special projects, such as scale-model propulsors for the U.S. Navy's Seawolf submarine in the 1980s (see page 36). Although limited in number, those projects led to further collaboration as Y‑12 intensified its focus on performing work for others outside the nuclear weapons complex after the Cold War. For example, Y‑12 supported General Dynamics with the manufacture of the Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle and Lockheed Martin with the F-22 Raptor aircraft.

“The downtrend in production work after the Cold War gave us reason to be more aggressive with developing the Work for Others program than we otherwise would have been. We had more resources available for the projects,” said John Gertsen, production manager at the time.

Additionally, the Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986 created cooperative research and development agreements, or CRADAs, that permitted Y‑12 to share resources, such as personnel, facilities and equipment, for research or development efforts consistent with the site's mission. “Y‑12 became more motivated to grow CRADAs in the early 1990s,” said Gertsen, now vice president of Uranium Processing Facility Programs. The agreements enabled industry to advance manufacturing techniques and Y‑12 to retain work force skills and to continue using equipment vital to maintaining a weapons-producing capability.

After the Cold War, Y‑12's primary mission transitioned to stockpile management. Stockpile management ensures that the U.S. has a safe and effective nuclear deterrent essential to national security.

Because no new nuclear weapons had been produced since 1991, concern for the aging stockpile was growing in the years following the Cold War. In 1998 Y‑12 began refurbishing the W87 on the basis of surveillance work performed on the system; the W87 refurbishment was the beginning of the Life Extension Program (see page 10).

Today maintenance and refurbishment of weapons through the Life Extension Program is a key facet of Y‑12's stockpile management mission. “Since the systems were built in parallel in the 1980s, many need refurbishment at the same time,” said Tom Fisher, director of Stockpile Programs. “Because of budget, capacity and personnel constraints, we need to develop less complex manufacturing models so that we can efficiently execute multiple systems simultaneously in the future. Those models may include interchangeable components, reuse of components or common components.”

Stockpile management includes surveillance activities as well as dismantlement and disposition of retired weapons. The work is driven by military needs and also fulfills the nation's treaty obligations to limit the number of weapons in the stockpile.

Y‑12's business was created to end war. While some missions change, one has always remained: defend the nation.