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'Virtual' nukes: testing weapons without exploding them


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December 26, 1996
Web posted at: 1:50 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Ann Kellan

(CNN) -- In September, the world's known nuclear powers signed an agreement to outlaw all nuclear tests, including underground blasts. But the end of one problem raises another one -- guaranteeing the performance of nuclear weapons that can't be tested.

"The weapons stockpile was always designed to be replaced periodically," says Richard Mah of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, one of several facilities that once designed nuclear weapons but are now responsible for making sure the existing stockpile will always perform as expected.

As a result, he says, the research done on aging nuclear devices only covered the weapons' expected lifetime. What happens beyond that is "new to us," Mah said.

Computer simulation


The solution may be a combination of supercomputer simulations, conventional explosive tests and human ingenuity.

As nuclear weapons age, some of their parts deteriorate. Researchers at California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, using temperatures and pressures "equivalent to the center of an exploding nuclear weapon," plan to test the properties of materials used to make those parts, according to Livermore's William Hogan.

Data gathered in that experiment and others can be used to refine the computer simulation that shows what happens to nuclear weapon components during detonations, explains Los Alamos researcher Michael Burns.

Is virtual reality enough?


Virtual reality helps researchers at New Mexico's Sandia National Laboratory grapple with the vast amount of data generated by the computer.

It sounds simple -- instead of setting off an aging nuclear device to see if it still works, all the puzzle pieces will be assembled in a computer, and a brand new "virtual" bomb with aging properties will be set off.

But a computer simulation can't measure up to the real thing, says physicist Merri Wood. She calls it scary that scientists don't know for sure how well the nuclear stockpile is aging. icon (136K/12 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

For now, weapons scientists say they are confident they can maintain a functioning nuclear stockpile for perhaps another 20 years, at an estimated cost of about $80 billion.


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