Scientists tasked with making sure America’s aging stockpile of nuclear weapons is in order — if needed — say they will begin shipping key components to the Nevada desert next year to prepare for underground tests they call “tickling the dragon’s tail.” National Defense Laboratory experts have not been able to physically verify the effectiveness and reliability of nuclear warheads since the 1992 underground test ban.
But Energy Department officials announced Thursday that they are on the verge of putting together the technology needed to make the next best thing happen.
As early as 2027, the $1.8 billion Scorpius project will make it possible to move beyond theoretical computer modeling and study in much more detail the conditions found in the final stages of a nuclear weapon’s implosion, but without a nuclear explosion, said Jon Custer, Sandia. project management in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Scientists call it “tickling the dragon’s tail,” Custer said because the experiment is approaching but remains below the stage in which the fission of nuclear materials maintains an ongoing series of chain reactions.
The hope is to answer many key questions about whether the country’s aging nuclear weapons still function as designed.
During the Cold War, these questions were answered by actually setting off nuclear explosions. In the 1950s and early 1960s, explosions sent mushroom clouds high into the sky over the deserts of New Mexico and Nevada. Testing was later limited to underground explosions, ending in 1992.
A new era of testing that has been underway for 10 years has entered its next phase at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, where workers began assembling the high-energy electron beam injector considered the most complex piece of Scorpius, Energy Department officials said Thursday.
The experimental machine, the length of a football field, will eventually sit 1,000 feet (304 meters) underground at Nevada’s Homeland Security.
“We need to know that supplies will work if needed,” Custer said.
“If you’ve had your car in the garage for 30 to 50 years and one day you put the key in the ignition, how confident are you that it will start?” he asked. “That’s how old our nuclear deterrent is. It’s been over 30 years since we conducted an underground test of a nuclear explosive.” Los Alamos National Lab in northern New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California also have roles in the project.
The injector assembled at Sandia is a linear induction accelerator that will generate a high-energy electron beam that collides with a metal target and generates X-rays that penetrate the test objects. When the plutonium is compressed with high explosives, the detector converts X-rays into images recorded by a sensitive camera that can capture images at a rate of 1 billion per second.
These nanosecond portraits will be compared to images of the same events generated by supercomputer codes to verify their accuracy.
Scorpius will be fully assembled in an underground complex at the facility formerly known as the Nevada Test Site, where scientists have conducted subcritical experiments since 1995 and nuclear tests date back to 1951. The facility is about 104 kilometers north of Las Vegas.
Custer said that ground-based facilities have tested the explosive behavior of other materials, but the Scorpius experiments will use real plutonium, which is unique.
“Nothing else behaves like that,” Custer said. “So the question for us is, are we feeding our codes with accurate data about the behavior of plutonium?” Josh Leckbee, who led the development and design of the injectors for Scorpius, said this would provide more confidence in both existing and new designs.
Plans for the complicated project have been the subject of proposals scrutinized for the past decade during the Energy Department’s vetting process, which finds and irons out conceptual and engineering flaws before funding can be awarded. Final approval came late last year.
The first delivery of key components to Nevada is scheduled to begin in March. Testing of the assembly is planned for most of 2025 before moving the injector underground in Nevada.
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