04 January 2010

Old Bombs and Bathrooms

While listening to NPR a couple of months ago, I heard an Indian diplomat casually state that is was common knowledge abroad that the US is working on "fourth generation" nuclear weapons. This bit of misinformation went unchallenged. I certainly didn't call in, because most information regarding the state of US nuclear weapons is classified, and I didn't want to jeopardize my day job, much less go to prison. Then our old upstairs bathroom provided a metaphor.

The sink began leaking. Fortunately the leak was slow and intermittent. It appeared to be coming from the body of the reproduction antique faucet I had installed 11 years ago. My body did not relish being cramped up under the sink again, so this time, I called a plumber.

After close inspection , the plumber told us that the leak could not be repaired. The entire faucet body and (considering the way things are bundled these days) faucet control levers would have to be replaced. Would we like to stop by the shop and order a set?

At this point my wife remembered that the toilet leaked, too. It was just a slow drip where the flush valve didn't seat properly, and would only take a minute to fix, right? The plumber was more than glad to replace the flush valve, but he didn't have the identical part. This wasn't surprising since the toilet is a genuine antique. It has been in the house for 80 years. So, he put in a newer, more complicated valve arrangement and left for his next job. By that evening, the toilet was running badly.

Now with respect to nuclear weapons, the plan to replace an aging part with a new part is called a "Life Extension Program," or LEP. The problem with an LEP is that sometimes the same old technology is no longer available. Our plumber, for instance, did an LEP on our old toilet, but he used a non-identical, newer technology part. Does that make it a "fourth generation" toilet?

In any case, the Toilet Life Extension Program 1 (TLEP1) was a failure, because the young plumber did not inspect the old flush valve seat carefully enough. If he had done so, he would have noticed that the seat had corroded, and would therefore also need to be replaced (TLEP2).

But the flush valve seat is part of a J-bend that doesn't exist on modern toilets. You can imagine why. Our antique toilet has a porcelain reservoir tank that hangs on the wall. The metal J-bend pipe connects it to the pedestal (the business end) which is about three inches away from the wall. The lower end of the J-Bend is joined to the pedestal by a brass spud, a rubber spud gasket, and a spud nut. If the spud nut is too loose, water floods onto the floor. If the spud nut is too tight, the porcelain cracks and the entire toilet must be replaced. Since they don't make toilets like ours anymore (too leak prone and too hard to fix), we would have to get a modern, Reliable Replacement Toilet (RRT). The RRT would work just like the old toilet, but the porcelain tank would sit directly on top of a porcelain extension of the pedestal, with just a rubber gasket connecting them. Same flush, without the J-bend. Again, does that make it a "fourth generation" toilet?

The plumber was skeptical about further TLEPs. The failure of TLEP1 led him to diagnose the need for TLEP2, but it might be that the parts were no longer available or were very costly. Most people in our position would just buy an RRT, he advised. (I use the term RRT, because it is similar to RRW, or Reliable Replacement Warhead, a name which must have been chosen by someone with no background in Public Relations.)

We were adamant. We have an antique house, and for esthetic reasons we want to maintain it as a kind of museum to the period in which it was built. Find the parts, we said.

Four hundred dollars and two sets of parts later, the toilet was still not fixed. The young plumber, unfamiliar with the old technology, bent one of the old replacement parts out of round. We requested an old plumber, who eventually did a successful TLEP2. The new flush valve assembly still leaked, though, until I replaced it with an old-style flush valve I found in an old-style hardware store. Call it TLEP2 Mod 1. And for all that, we couldn't keep the technology frozen in time. The toilet looks the same on the outside, but it has one or two new technology parts inside.

Ultimately our adventure fixing our old toilet took longer (a month), was more complicated (three separate, sequential efforts), and cost a lot more than replacing the thing with a similar-looking alternative, which would have taken a few days (mostly ordering and shipping).

So it is with the unfortunately named Reliable Replacement Warhead. Ultimately, it would be cheaper and more reliable to modernize the US nuclear weapons stockpile, than to keep it on life support with repeated LEPs. Modernization also has the advantages that we could be sure of the availability of parts, and the familiarity of young technicians with the basic technology.

We could do nothing: no LEPs and no RRWs. But that would risk the stockpile eventually becoming unreliable ("turning to green cheese," as they say in the business). That's a bad idea, given the state of the world, and given that all the other nuclear weapons states are modernizing their arsenals. I think it better to modernize the stockpile so that we can disarm by intent as geopolitical conditions warrant, rather than disarm by default at a date uncertain.

Anyway, after all the difficulty, delay, and cost of the TLEPs, I ended up doing the RRF (Reliable Replacement Faucet - remember there was no LEP for this problem) myself. But this brings up one more subject. The reason that we could go without a bathroom for a month - that we did not have to relieve ourselves at the neighbors', or dig a privy in the backyard - is that we have a downstairs bathroom which served as a backup. By analogy, we should always maintain enough different types of warheads and delivery systems in the US nuclear weapons stockpile, and enough spares, such that we can still provide deterrence to our adversaries and assurance to our allies even if some portion of the stockpile were to become unreliable for a while.

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