Sandia’s success in life extension programs for a variety of nuclear weapons will allow for future reductions in the nuclear weapons stockpile, NNSA Deputy Administrator Don Cook told visitors during Sandia’s first Nonproliferation Treaty Transparency Visit.
Also led by US Ambassador Adam Scheinman, Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation, and attended by other officials from NNSA, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Sandia Field Office, the visit was a major US initiative leading up to the Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The conference occurs every five years and will take place in New York, April 27-May 22.
The recent visit allowed 12 international attendees to observe firsthand Sandia’s multidisciplinary technical work and learn about the technical infrastructure and workforce that support US implementation of the NPT. The group visited the Technology Training and Demonstration Area (TTD) at the Center for Global Security and Cooperation. At the TTD, they learned about Sandia’s contributions to treaty monitoring, arms control, civilian nuclear power, and safeguards support to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as well as chemical and biological risk reduction. The group also visited the Z machine, the Integrated Security Facility, and the Thermal Test Complex. On Friday, the same group received similar presentations and tours at LANL.
Paves way for future stockpile reductions
Cook said that increased confidence in the safety, security, and effectiveness of the nation’s deterrent comes from science-based stockpile stewardship and life extension programs, and ultimately paves the way to future reductions in the US nuclear weapons stockpile.
“The reason for that is we’ve got a substantially decreased stockpile from the Cold War and the president has said we can go further,” he said, adding the difficulty is that the stockpile is older than it’s ever been, and old weapons components are subject to degradation as a result of aging.
Cook said he anticipates that stockpile downsizing likely would come from the significant number of weapons the US maintains as a “hedge” against technical failure.
“We extend the life of the weapons, we get more confidence, and we have improved safety and security. Technically, they’ll have the same requirements — no new requirements or capabilities — but because we’ve got greater confidence, then we can begin reducing the hedge weapons,” he said.
The US is pursuing a strategy that will reduce the number of nuclear weapon types from 12 to five, Cook said. The first step in achieving this goal is the current B61-12 Life Extension Program (LEP).
The DOE/NNSA stockpile stewardship activities, Cook said, will result in:
- a reduction of the number of bombs by a factor of two;
- the removal of the last megaton-class weapon, the B83, from the stockpile;
- a reduction of more than 80 percent in the special nuclear materials in the bomb portion of the air leg of the nuclear triad; and
- a commensurate reduction in overall destructive power.
Deputy Laboratories Director and Executive VP for National Security Programs Steve Rottler (0002) said that Sandia’s transition to extending the life of the stockpile began in the 1990s with W87 LEP, the 2000s with the W76 LEP, and continues today with LEPs on the B61 and W80, an alteration on the W88, and a replacement of the arming and fuzing assembly for the Minuteman warheads.
“We’re frankly facing a workload and challenges that this laboratory and the complex have not dealt with in almost 30 years,” he said.
Steve spoke about Sandia’s commitment and general approach to nuclear weapons safety.
“An important philosophy in our approach to underwriting the safety of nuclear weapons is we do not get involved in estimating the probability that a weapon will be exposed to an accident environment. We assume that in the lifetime of every nuclear weapon in our stockpile it will be exposed to a whole set of abnormal environments.” he said.
To withstand any abnormal environments, the weapons are designed so the components providing electrical energy to set off the weapon will fail long before all the barriers in place to prevent that electrical energy from setting off the weapon would fail, he said.
“We do that with very, very high confidence,” Steve added.
The Labs play a “critical role” in “advising the government about the focus necessary to achieve the level of confidence and safety we have in our stockpile today. While we never rest on our laurels, it is a supremely engineered level of confidence,” Sandia President and Labs Director Paul Hommert told the visitors. “It is a legacy, which those of us in this business take deeply seriously, that is embodied in this institution.”
Vice President of Energy, Nonproliferation, and High-Consequence Security Jill Hruby (6000) told the visitors about Sandia’s support for national nuclear security programs, arms control treaties and verification, and international threat reduction.
“We make sure that our weapons are secured in all places and at all times,” she said.
Jill discussed a variety of Sandia programs, including work to ensure the safety of nuclear weapons during ground transportation, security perimeter detection systems for nuclear weapons facilities, the development of tools for arms control treaties with monitoring provisions, and efforts to secure weapons grade materials.
Senior manager Pablo Garcia, who organized Sandia’s portion of the visit, says the visit went “extremely well” and visitors left informed about the interface of US nuclear weapons policy and the technical work.
“All of them told me personally that they were very impressed by the event, the capabilities they saw, and most importantly, the dedication to our mission by everybody they met,” he says.
Sandia “enjoyed hosting our international visitors and showing them how the Labs’ science and engineering expertise is helping strengthen the nation’s commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Our work contributes to preventing nuclear weapon proliferation, enabling a safe, secure, and effective stockpile and promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy,” Paul says. “The open dialogue with our guests, visits to our Z pulsed-power machine, Thermal Test Complex, Integrated Security Facility, and a viewing of nonproliferation technologies showed our guests Sandia’s ongoing commitment to making the world more secure.”