Life-Extension Programs Encompass All Our Expertise
WHEN the weapons comprising our nuclear forces of deterrence were originally designed decades ago, scientists knew the warheads could not remain safe, secure, and reliable indefinitely. Over time, components and materials deteriorate as the weapons age. As a result, the nuclear design laboratories—Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia national laboratories—continually assess the health of the stockpile and determine whether a particular weapon type needs to undergo a life-extension program (LEP).
LEP efforts include identifying and correcting potential technical issues by refurbishing or replacing certain components. LEPs also allow us to strengthen existing safety systems, for example, by introducing insensitive high explosives, which are more resistant than conventional high explosives to detonation from fire or accident.
LEPs are an important tool that allows us to seamlessly sustain the nation’s nuclear weapons. In effect, LEPs are triumphs of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) Stockpile Stewardship Program, which was launched at the end of the Cold War to maintain our weapons without nuclear testing. Advances in science, engineering, and computing—representing everything we have learned about nuclear reactions and materials science for the past 70 years—are incorporated into LEP efforts to ensure the devices remain safer, more secure, more reliable, longer-lived, and more maintainable than ever.
In 2004, Lawrence Livermore scientists, engineers, and technicians completed the very first LEP without nuclear testing, which was for the W87 warhead. Today, we stand ready to repeat this challenging and exacting endeavor to design, test, and certify components in the life-extended W78 warheads for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. For every W78 component, we will choose from among several design and material options while keeping an eye on ways to minimize costs and environmentally sensitive materials and processes.
As the article Extending the Life of an Aging Weapon describes, the W78 LEP effort affords an uncommon opportunity to offer the next generation priceless experience: Livermore’s hands-on physics, chemistry, materials science, and engineering know-how of the Laboratory’s stockpile stewards. There is no replacement for on-the-job training to learn how to design, build, and test critical components and ensure their integration into exceedingly complex devices of such importance to national security.
The W78 LEP also allows us to take advantage of new test and diagnostic instruments, laboratories, and major research facilities across the nuclear security enterprise. For example, we are assembling the first components of the Laboratory’s Sequoia supercomputer. This 20-petaflops (20 quadrillion floating-point operations per second) system will be the world’s most powerful supercomputer and will perform unprecedented simulations of nuclear reactions. Sequoia will also support scientific discoveries that will inevitably strengthen stockpile stewardship in the years ahead.
We also have new capabilities, such as fiber optic photonic Doppler velocimetry for diagnosing hydrodynamic tests at the Contained Firing Facility (the largest indoor firing facility in the world) at our remote Site 300. The Joint Actinide Shock Physics Experimental Research gas gun at the Nevada National Security Site allows us to investigate the properties of a key metal— plutonium—at extremely high pressures and temperatures. And the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility at Los Alamos uses two large x-ray machines to obtain detailed three-dimensional images of implosions.
We’re also advancing our understanding of fundamental nuclear processes and nuclear weapon performance. Last year, a decades-long investigation into so-called energy balance resulted in a theoretical breakthrough for a phenomenon that perplexed physicists for decades. Our theoretical explanation and detailed simulation models were validated in 35 experiments on the National Ignition Facility.
Even with advanced facilities and top-flight Livermore people, we know we cannot complete a successful LEP alone. On the W78 LEP, we will work closely with the Project Officers Group, which includes individuals from the Department of Defense and NNSA. And we will collaborate with our colleagues at Los Alamos and Sandia and at the manufacturing and assembly facilities within the weapons complex. I’m confident that, with this team and its exceptional stewardship capabilities, the W78 LEP will continue stockpile stewardship’s remarkable record of success.