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The US-Russian teamwork that kept nuclear weapons safe

Published by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Siegfried Hecker, Paul White

It was a strange phenomenon. Until just 10 years previously, the experts’ respective governments had been adversaries. But Russian and American nuclear scientists shared ties that no one else in the world could appreciate. Working far apart, they and their forebears had ushered into existence the world’s most destructive weapon, the atom bomb. They had worked to improve it, manage it, and make sure it was reliable. Now, they were trying to keep nuclear weapons safe from accidents and secure against theft and sabotage as the two superpowers downsized their arsenals. The scientists and engineers knew something that few others understood: That the most dangerous time in a typical nuclear weapon’s life cycle is not when it is being created, transported, or readied for launch. Rather, it is when it is being taken apart.

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