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Computer simulations can substitute for nuclear tests

underground nuclear test
An underground nuclear test  

But first, underground blasts must provide data

May 14, 1998
Web posted at: 10:07 p.m. EDT (0207 GMT)

From Correspondent Ann Kellan

LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico (CNN) -- Officials in India say they will use the data obtained from this week's underground nuclear explosions in supercomputers to test and develop nuclear weapons.

That's nothing new. The United States, France and other nuclear countries have long used computers to simulate the action of nuclear weapons, feeding in data obtained from actual bomb tests.

vxtreme CNN's Ann Kellan reports

The United States, which has conducted more than 1,000 nuclear weapons tests since World War II, now uses its data in supercomputers that process more than a trillion operations a second -- powerful enough to simulate how different components of a nuclear weapon will behave.

"The situation now is that the United States is no longer testing nuclear weapons, and, to a very large extent, we're no longer designing them or manufacturing nuclear weapons," said Jas. Mercer-Smith of Los Alamos National Laboratory, where America's nuclear program began.

Computer simulation of a nuclear explosion
Computer simulation of a nuclear explosion   

Among other things, these computer tests can help scientists predict how nuclear weapons now stockpiled will perform after years on the shelf.

"We're using our supercomputers and computer simulation to give us information about what might happen to materials in our nuclear weapons over time without having to do underground testing," said Energy Secretary Federico Pena.

According to Los Alamos spokesman Michael Burns, computers can be used not only to simulate how weapons age but to simulate new weapon designs or to approximate how a new weapon delivery system would work, be it a bomb or a missile.

"We can then ask the computer, 'Calculate what will happen at any given time, what will be the shapes, what will be the sizes, what will be the densities, how fast will they be moving,'" Burns said.

Though Indian officials say they will use the data collected from tests for computer simulations, it is not clear if they will use those simulations to develop new weapons or to monitor an existing stockpile.

Pena says he's skeptical when the Indian officials say there will be no more underground tests.

"It's premature to accept what the Indian government is now saying. We do not know precisely what is meant by that statement," he said.

Indeed, Department of Energy officials say they know from experience that the more underground tests that are done, the more data they have for their computers and the better their computer simulations will be. And even though computers can approximate what a weapon might do, researchers agree that the best way to perfect a nuclear weapon is to test the real thing.


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