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New machine to enhance understanding of nuclear weapons’ behavior

New machine to enhance understanding of nuclear weapons’ behavior

On March 7, assembly began at Los Alamos National Laboratory on a groundbreaking machine that will allow scientists to use real plutonium in experiments while studying the conditions immediately before the nuclear phase of a weapon's functioning. The machine will prove instrumental in the Laboratory's stockpile stewardship mission, which ensures the safety, security and reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons through computational tools and engineering test facilities, rather than underground testing.

Although the plutonium used will never reach criticality — the condition that forms a self-sustaining nuclear reaction — the tests performed as part of the Scorpius Advanced Sources and Detection (ASD) project will provide essential knowledge about how the key element in nuclear weapons behaves.

The components being built will be the first two accelerator cell modules for Scorpius.

"This means we have officially started building, and I am so looking forward to seeing this experiment in my lifetime," said Bob Webster, deputy Laboratory director for Weapons.
‘It will be transformational’

"Just knowing the impact this will have on how we do our work as a design lab is pretty amazing," said Mike Furlanetto, ASD senior director. "It will provide so much data to assess and certify the nuclear stockpile."

The accelerator cell modules are key components of the 400-foot-long linear accelerator that will create radiographic images of subcritical plutonium experiments. When completed, Scorpius will be housed in a tunnel nearly 1,000 feet underground in the Principal Underground Laboratory for Subcritical Experiments (PULSE, formerly the U1a complex) at the Nevada National Security Site.

Furlanetto said the machine will provide information on plutonium aging, behavior and safety, and will provide more accurate data for computer simulations modeling weapons behavior.

"It will be transformational," he said.

The project represents a collaboration between researchers from Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, and the Nevada National Security Site. Los Alamos leads the design team, which has been working since 2014 on the project.

"Now we've got equipment here; it's happening," Webster said.

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