Sunday 8 October 2023

'Tickling the dragon's tale': US to prepare for underground testing of nuclear weapons without any explosions

 The scientists in charge of making sure nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile are still functioning are set to start moving key components to the desert in Nevada in November to prepare for underground testing.

Those at national defense laboratories have not been able to confirm the effectiveness and reliability of nuclear warheads since 1992, when an underground test ban was instituted. However, the Associated Press reported that Energy Department officials announced on Thursday that they have figured out the next best thing, which has been referred to as "tickling the dragon's tale." 

The $1.8 billion Scorpius project could move beyond the theoretical computing model to research, in detail, what goes into a nuclear implosion without carrying out a nuclear explosion. The report noted that this strategy could be put in place as early as 2027, according to Jon Custer, head of the Sandia project.

Custer noted that the reason why this strategy is referred to as "tickling the dragon's tail" is because the experiment approaches but remains below the phase at which nuclear materials ignite a series of chain reactions, according to the report. The question scientists are trying to answer is whether U.S. nuclear weapons are still operative. 

While nuclear weapons previously were detonated to answer these key questions, a new era of nuclear testing has come on the scene, where those at Sandia National Laboratories have started putting together what is called a high-energy electron beam injector, which is considered the most complex part of the Scorpius project.

The AP reported that this machine is about the length of a football field, and that it will reside about 1,000 feet below ground in Nevada.

“It’s clear we need to know that the stockpile will work if required,” Custer said.

“If you had a car in a garage for 30 to 50 years and one day you insert the ignition key, how confident are you that it will start?” he questioned. “That’s how old our nuclear deterrent is. It has been more than 30 years since we conducted an underground nuclear explosive test.”

Other labs involved in the project include Los Alamos National Lab and Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California.

Late last month, it was reported that the lab in Los Alamos was working on the production of plutonium cores, which is a pivotal component of nuclear weapons. This project is widely considered to be the lab's most ambitious project since the formation of the nuclear bomb during World War II.

S&TR Preview: Scorpius Shines A Bright Light on Plutonium

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