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U.S. Advances Toward Subsurface Examination of Nuclear Arsenal Without Actual Detonations

by Ethan Kim
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Scorpius project

Researchers tasked with confirming the operational readiness of the U.S.’ aging arsenal of nuclear weapons reveal plans to transport essential parts to a Nevada desert facility next year. This is in preparation for subsurface tests they refer to as “tickling the dragon’s tail.”

Since the prohibition of underground nuclear tests in 1992, specialists from national defense labs have been unable to physically corroborate the functionality and dependability of nuclear warheads. However, officials from the Department of Energy stated last Thursday that they are nearing the completion of the technology required to perform an alternative form of testing.

By 2027, the Scorpius project, with a budget of $1.8 billion, aims to augment theoretical computer simulations by closely examining the conditions present in the final moments of a nuclear weapon’s implosion, minus the actual nuclear detonation, according to Jon Custer, the project lead at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The initiative is dubbed “tickling the dragon’s tail,” Custer noted, because the test skirts the threshold at which nuclear fission would instigate a self-sustaining chain reaction. The objective is to address critical uncertainties regarding the effectiveness of America’s aging nuclear weapons.

During the era of the Cold War, these questions were resolved through live nuclear detonations. Tests conducted in the 1950s and early 1960s created mushroom clouds over the deserts of New Mexico and Nevada. Subsequent testing was confined to underground detonations, which ceased in 1992.

After a decade of development, this new testing methodology has entered its next stage at Sandia National Laboratories. Personnel have commenced the assembly of the high-energy electron beam injector, considered to be Scorpius’ most intricate component, confirmed Department of Energy officials last Thursday.

The experimental apparatus, roughly the length of a football field, will eventually be positioned 1,000 feet below the surface at the Nevada National Security Site.

“The imperative to ascertain the reliability of our nuclear stockpile is evident,” stated Custer. “Consider a vehicle stored in a garage for several decades. How certain would one be that it starts upon turning the ignition key? Our nuclear deterrent faces a similar challenge, with more than three decades having elapsed since the last underground nuclear test.”

Additional contributors to the project include Los Alamos National Lab in northern New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California.

The injector being constructed at Sandia is a linear induction accelerator designed to produce a high-energy electron beam. This beam will collide with a metal target, creating X-rays that will penetrate the test subjects. As plutonium undergoes compression by high explosives, sensors will convert the X-rays into images captured by high-speed cameras capable of taking shots at one billion frames per second.

These rapid-capture images will be juxtaposed with computational simulations to verify their precision.

Scorpius will be entirely assembled in an underground facility at the location formerly known as the Nevada Test Site. This site has been the venue for subcritical experiments since 1995, with nuclear tests dating back to 1951. It is situated approximately 65 miles north of Las Vegas.

Regarding the unique nature of the experiments, Custer stated, “While above-ground facilities have experimented with the explosive characteristics of various materials, Scorpius will involve real plutonium, which is unparalleled in its behavior.”

Josh Leckbee, who headed the development and design of the injector for Scorpius, said the project would bolster confidence in both existing and prospective designs.

Over the last ten years, the project underwent rigorous vetting by the Department of Energy to identify and eliminate theoretical and technical flaws before securing funding. Final approval was granted late last year.

The inaugural shipment of key components to Nevada is slated for March, with assembly tests scheduled to run through the majority of 2025 before the injector is moved underground.

Dave Funk, Vice-President for Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments at the Nevada National Security Site, said, “We aim to establish this new capability by 2027, executing the initial subcritical experiments using these advanced techniques to reinforce our nuclear deterrent and once more assert our technological leadership as a nation.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Scorpius project

What is the Scorpius project?

The Scorpius project is a $1.8 billion initiative led by the U.S. Department of Energy, aimed at examining the conditions inside a nuclear weapon’s implosion without causing an actual nuclear detonation. The project seeks to validate the effectiveness of the United States’ aging nuclear stockpile.

Who is leading the Scorpius project?

Jon Custer is the project lead at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sandia is one of the key national defense laboratories involved in the project, along with Los Alamos National Lab in northern New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California.

What is the objective of “tickling the dragon’s tail”?

The term “tickling the dragon’s tail” refers to the delicate testing methodology that approaches the point of initiating a self-sustaining nuclear fission chain reaction but stops short of triggering it. The purpose is to closely examine the conditions present during the final stages of a nuclear weapon’s implosion, without causing an actual explosion.

When is the project expected to be operational?

The Scorpius project aims to be operational by 2027. Assembly tests are planned to run through most of 2025 before the high-energy electron beam injector, a key component of Scorpius, is moved to its underground location at the Nevada National Security Site.

What technology will be used in the Scorpius experiments?

The Scorpius project will use a linear induction accelerator to generate a high-energy electron beam. This beam will collide with a metal target, creating X-rays that penetrate test objects. As plutonium is compressed by high explosives, detectors will convert the X-rays into images captured by high-speed cameras.

Why hasn’t there been any physical validation of U.S. nuclear warheads since 1992?

Since the prohibition of underground nuclear tests in 1992, physical validation of the effectiveness and reliability of U.S. nuclear warheads has not been possible. Scorpius aims to provide an alternative form of testing to address this gap.

How long has the Scorpius project been in development?

The Scorpius project has been in development for approximately 10 years. It underwent rigorous vetting by the Department of Energy to identify and eliminate conceptual and technical flaws before funding was secured. Final approval was granted late last year.

Where will the Scorpius experiments be conducted?

The experiments will be conducted at the Nevada National Security Site, which is located approximately 65 miles north of Las Vegas. The experimental apparatus will be positioned 1,000 feet below the surface at this facility.

What kind of materials will be used in the Scorpius experiments?

Real plutonium will be used in the Scorpius experiments, making them unique in their approach. According to Jon Custer, the project lead, no other material behaves like plutonium, making it crucial for accurate testing.

Who gave the final approval for the Scorpius project?

The final approval for the Scorpius project came from the U.S. Department of Energy, following a decade-long vetting process to identify and rectify any conceptual and technical errors.

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