Climate change and US nuclear capability

A recent report suggests that flooding and heat waves exacerbated by climate change could complicate US nuclear launches.

Key suggestions:

  • The US Department of Defense (DOD) and the US Department of Energy (DOE) should conduct climate change vulnerability assessments of all their nuclear installations and facilities to determine how and when climate change could impact each site’s unique nuclear systems, operations, and activities.
  • The DOD should invest in dynamic climate change modelling and both interagency and nongovernmental partnerships to ensure US nuclear decisions and planning are informed by the most accurate climate change projections. The DOD and other agencies should be required to complete forward-looking studies of potential climate change impacts on any future nuclear actions, including the construction and deployment of modernized nuclear systems.
  • The DOD should adopt a mission-level focus in its climate adaptation planning and establish a workstream specifically focused on the nuclear mission. An initial deliverable of this work should be a dedicated climate action plan for the US deterrence mission.
  • The DOD should integrate climate change scenario exercises into nuclear planning to simulate potential climate-nuclear crises and develop mitigation and adaptation plans. Key considerations should include how the climate scenario may impact local and global nuclear operations, nuclear command and control assets, base personnel, and local communities, with the exercise results incorporated into nuclear planning efforts.

Flooding, rising seas and extreme heat from climate change threaten the nation’s ability to launch some of its nuclear weapons, according to a new report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The report warns that climate change could undermine US efforts to stop adversaries from using nuclear weapons by interfering with the military’s operation and maintenance of missile launch systems that are a key part of nuclear deterrence.

There is a suggestion that missile systems at a Navy submarine base in Georgia and at a launch field in North Dakota face increasing flood threats from climate change that could inundate for weeks at a time access roads that are used to transport missiles and maintenance equipment to the sites.

Black flag days

At Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, heat waves are the major concern. Many climate models predict an increasing number of days with temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the threshold for “black flag” days at the air base that limit the activities of armed personnel due to concerns about heat stroke.

The report claims to be the first to look at the impacts of climate change on the US nuclear deterrent capabilities. To assess the risks, report author Kwong overlaid the predictions from government climate models such as the NOAA model for sea-level rise with critical nuclear warhead facilities that represent each element of the triad. 

US national security strategy aims to deter adversaries from using nuclear weapons by having enough capability to launch a nuclear strike anywhere and at any time.

Flooding issues 

At the Kings Bay, Georgia, naval base, the access road to the Strategic Weapons Facility Atlantic, where submarines with nuclear warheads get repaired and receive supplies, is projected to flood once a year on average, the report found. The base is one of only two sites equipped to fully support a ballistic missile submarine fleet, one of the most important legs of the US nuclear system for its clandestine operations under the sea.

The launch fields in Minot, North Dakota, could face similar transportation problems, it suggests. The access roads connecting about 150 underground missile launch pads are unpaved dirt roads “particularly vulnerable to flooding,” the report says.

Unpassable roads

Unpassable access roads could disrupt the missile maintenance efforts, a problem with potential “far-reaching consequences” as many US nuclear weapons were built during the Cold War and need frequent maintenance to properly function, the report says.

At the Whiteman air base, the average number of days with maximum temperature of 90 F or higher could increase to 84 per year by mid0century and to 114 by 2070 from the current level of 35 days, according to the report.

Heat waves could also impact the stealth bombers because rising temperatures cause air density to drop, making take-off difficult, the report says. Commercial aircraft comparable to B-2s in size are grounded at 118 F, according to the report.

Radar-absorbing stealth skins of the B-2 bombers are also highly sensitive to heat and humidity, requiring “special, intensive maintenance” during heatwaves.

What seems clear is that more discussion around climate change and US nuclear capability is crucial in determining how to preserve nuclear deterrence.

To read the full report, click here. 

There is a suggestion that missile systems at a Navy submarine base in Georgia and at a launch field in North Dakota face increasing flood threats from climate change that could inundate for weeks at a time access roads that are used to transport missiles and maintenance equipment to the sites.

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