Sandia President Paul Hommert testifies on importance of B61 LEP

Sandia President and Labs Director Paul Hommert, right,  was part of a panel testifying before the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee on the importance of the B61 LEP. Paul was joined at the hearing by, from left, Madelyn R. Creedon, DoD assistant secretary for Global Strategic Affairs; Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander, US Strategic Command;  and Donald Cook, NNSA deputy administrator for Defense Programs.  (Photo by Charles Votaw)

by Cathy Ann Connelly

Long-term confidence in a critical element of the US nuclear deterrent depends on the success of the B61 life extension program (LEP) now underway at Sandia, Labs President and Director Paul Hommert said in recent congressional testimony.

 “In order to sustain high confidence in the safety, security, and reliability of the B61 into the next decade, it is our technical judgment that we must complete the life extension program currently being executed,” Paul told the US House of Representatives’ House Armed Services Committee’s (HASC) Strategic Forces Subcommittee during a 90-minute hearing on weapons modernization.

Paul testified that the B61 LEP must be completed because of well-documented technology obsolescence and aging issues that he called “not surprising for a system the oldest units of which were manufactured and fielded in the late seventies, with some components dating to the sixties.”

He testified — along with Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander, US Strategic Command; Madelyn R. Creedon, DoD assistant secretary for Global Strategic Affairs; and Donald Cook, NNSA deputy administrator for Defense Programs — during  the hearing “Nuclear Weapons Modernization Programs: Military, Technical, and Political Requirements for the B61 Life Extension Program and Future Stockpile Strategy.”

The B61 gravity bomb is the cornerstone of US extended deterrence to its allies. It is flexible and can be delivered by strategic B-2 bombers and select Dual Capable Aircraft in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as well as F-15 and F-16 fighters. The B61 also has some of the oldest components in the US nuclear weapons stockpile, which is safe, secure, and reliable, but aging, Paul said.

 The hearing was intended to provide Congress with expert views on the B61 LEP and to advance discussion on the subject. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the HASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee chair, opened the hearing by asking the witnesses to “help us understand the details of the programs, the requirements that are driving it, its history and current status, and its outlook for the future.”

Funding uncertainties a challenge

Paul emphasized that the B61 LEP is essential, on cost, and on schedule, rigorously managed, and has the appropriate, focused resources and expert staff needed. However, Paul and the others who testified made it clear the biggest risk to the B61 LEP is not technical failure, but funding.

The impacts of fiscal year 2014 budget decisions haven’t been applied to schedule and lifecycle costs, Paul said. Given the current budget uncertainties and reductions forecast due to sequestration, he added it is likely that the LEP will experience schedule delays and accompanying higher overall costs.

The B61 LEP addresses all known issues related to aging or technology obsolescence, and is the minimum program that meets DoD and NNSA requirements, he said.

Paul told the subcommittee that Sandia is well into the full-scale engineering development phase of the LEP. A baseline design review is scheduled for fall of 2015.

To emphasize the point of technology obsolescence, during his testimony Paul showed HASC members an outdated vacuum tube radar component and contrasted it with a new radio-frequency integrated circuit radar for the B61-12.

Paul said Sandia has spent $253 million of the $2.65 billion estimated incremental cost of design, engineering, development, and production allocated to Sandia for the B61 LEP, the amount specified in the Weapon Development Cost Report of June 2012.

“At Sandia, we met all major FY13 program milestones for the B61 LEP on, or under, cost — although sequestration caused some of the work scope to be deferred to FY14,” he said.

Paul pointed to rigorous project management controls Sandia has put in place for all the Labs’ weapons modernization work. Sandia also has drawn on resources, staff, and expertise nurtured through interagency work on broader national security challenges to meet the urgent demands of Sandia’s core nuclear weapons mission, he said.

Last place for half-measures

Paul said that in his 37-year professional career he has had the extraordinary privilege to work at three institutions whose core responsibilities are nuclear weapons: the Atomic Weapons Establishment in the United Kingdom, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Sandia.

“In that time, I have worked with many exceptional individuals who have dedicated their professional lives to the innovation, science, and engineering excellence required to ensure that these unique devices of mankind are safe, secure, and reliable,” he said. “I fully recognize the fiscal environment in which we are operating, and throughout my written testimony I have indicated our focus on cost management and cost efficiency. However, my experience deeply reminds me that nuclear weapons are the last place for half measures or corner cutting.”


-- Cathy Ann Connelly

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Researchers converting natural gas to liquid transportation fuel

Sandia researcher Eizadora Yu prepares biomass harvested from liquid fungal cultures for nucleic acid analysis. The cultures come from the endophytic fungus Hypoxylon sp, which produces compounds potentially used for fuel. (Photo by Dino Vournas)

by Mike Janes

A multi-project, $34 million effort by the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) is aimed at developing advanced biocatalyst technologies that can convert natural gas to liquid fuel for transportation, and Sandia will use its expertise in protein expression, enzyme engineering, and high-throughput assays to help make it happen.

The ARPA-E program, known as REMOTE, or Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy, involves 15 projects. Sandia is a part of a two-year, $1.5 million award led by MOgene Green Chemicals, a subsidiary of St. Louis-based MOgene, LC, and will work toward “sunlight-assisted conversion of methane to butanol.”

The broad goal is to have another source of energy in the US that doesn’t have to be imported and could lead to lower CO emissions than conventional fossil fuels.

Methanotrophs are microbes that can metabolize methane. Blake Simmons (8630) calls them the “poster child” of organisms capable of metabolizing and converting methane. The goal of the project is to engineer pathways from these organisms into another microbial host that can generate butanol. Butanol can be used as a fuel in an internal combustion engine and has, along with ethanol, long been considered one of the best biofuel options for transportation energy.

“The need for hydrocarbons that are non-petroleum in origin is still growing, including for applications such as aviation and diesel engines,” says Blake. “But in its natural state, you’re not going to readily burn natural gas in those types of engines, and the same goes for some combustion engines.” Natural gas, he says, requires a special modification to be used effectively as a liquid fuel in vehicles, much like biomass needs to be converted before it can be used as a drop-in fuel.

“With biomass, we are essentially taking something that exists in nature and converting it into a low-cost, low-carbon, domestically sourced fuel. With this project, we’re using natural gas as the input rather than biomass,” Blake says. Natural gas extracted from the ground is not renewable, he points out, but is playing an increasingly important role for DOE and the nation’s energy supply.

Blake says MOgene brings a great deal of organism expertise to the table, while Sandia offers enzyme engineering and other capabilities.

Improving on what nature has given us

Using organisms to convert natural gas into liquid transportation fuels isn’t a new objective for the research community, Blake says. “There have been plenty of investigations into this in the past, since there are plenty of organisms in nature that thrive and survive and multiply off of natural gas metabolism. The problem, though, is that they exist in unique, tailored environments and are typically very slow at what they do.” ARPA-E’s projects, he says, are hoping to improve upon “what nature has given us” and develop new, more efficient pathways to speed up the process and convert gaseous feedstocks at a pace and scale that is commercially viable. Currently, there are no proven biological methods for converting gaseous inputs such as natural gas into butanol.

“What we and others are doing is looking at the core metabolism of these microbes,” Blake says. “Then, we can either engineer it to make it faster in native organisms, or we can take the metabolism out of those organisms and put it in something more industrially relevant.”

Though the research community has wrestled with this problem before without much success, Blake thinks Sandia might be up to the task.

“Time and time again, through various LDRDs [Laboratory Directed Research and Development projects] and our work at the Joint BioEnergy Institute [JBEI], Sandia has proven its ability to express proteins that are difficult to express,” Blake says. The lab also possesses engineering and modeling tools as well as the ability to build high-throughput custom enzyme assays, significant proficiencies that can lead to better performance in enzymes. Few research organizations, says Blake, offer that package of technical capabilities to tackle a problem like this one.

Blake acknowledges that meeting the objectives will not be a simple or trivial endeavor. “People have been trying to express this class of enzymes for a couple of decades,” he says. “So this definitely won’t be a slam dunk.”

But based on Sandia’s work with membrane proteins and various tools developed over the years, he thinks the lab is up to the test. “It’s been a confounding scientific challenge for the research community, and this is a notoriously difficult class of proteins,” he admits. “But I think we have the collective experience and capabilities at Sandia to figure it out.”


-- Mike Janes

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In-House course lets support staff explore nuclear engineering

CRITICAL INFORMATION — Bob Busch, center, a University of New Mexico nuclear engineering professor, goes over features of the Sandia Pulsed Reactor/Critical Experiments (SPR/CX), with Labs contractors Chris Hall (4126) and Cassandra Wilson (1385). Chris and Cassandra were students in a course Busch taught at Sandia over the summer that gave nuclear engineering training to Tech Area V staff who didn’t have that background. (Photo by Shawn Howry)

by Nancy Salem

The people who work in Tech Area 5 share a mission but not a language. “Even though we’re in the same organizations supporting the nuclear weapons complex, we use words differently because we don’t all have the same technical backgrounds,” says Shawn Howry (1382).

Warren Strong, manager of Nuclear Materials Management Dept. 1386, and Dave Wheeler, manager of Nuclear Quality & Requirements Dept. 1382, had talked about the need for differently trained people to understand the fundamentals of nuclear engineering. “We agreed that workers with various kinds of expertise in this division should know more about our product — providing unique radiation environments for materials and systems testing,” Dave says. “We pride ourselves on being a learning organization. We can be more effective if everyone understands something about radiation and nuclear technology.”

  Warren and Dave envisioned a course that would offer nuclear engineering, radiation, and technology training to people without that educational background. Earlier this year, Dave and Shawn got to work on the idea. Their first stop was the University of New Mexico, where they approached long-time nuclear engineering professor Bob Busch, no stranger to Sandia. He had worked and interned at the Labs dating back to the 1970s.

Busch agreed to teach a nuclear engineering fundamentals course at Tech Area 5 over the summer. It ended up being designed for technical and non-technical people.

“A very diverse group of people showed interest in attending,” Shawn says. “For some it was a refresher on the technical side of nuclear engineering and for non-technical people it was a great experience learning some of the language and giving insight into what they hear and do in their organizations.”

Drinking from a fire hose

The course had 10 two-hour sessions held in Tech Area 5. Busch modified his sophomore-level introduction to nuclear engineering for a wider audience. “It was crammed full of information. At times it was like drinking from a fire hose,” Shawn says. “We wanted a curriculum that would keep the technical people challenged but not overwhelm the non-technical students. Bob tailored the course to a happy medium.”

The class drew a core group of 20 students from nine departments. Four were nuclear engineers. The students were assigned to teams with a mix of technical and non-technical people who got together outside the once-a-week classes to discuss lessons and make sure everyone was keeping up. Team leads helped answer technical questions and provide mentorship. “Having these small teams and being able to interact internally was huge,” Shawn says. “We could help each other answer questions and work things out.”

Among the curriculum topics were Nuclear Reactions, Radioactive Decay, Interaction of Heavy Charged Particles and Matter, Neutron Cross Sections, and Ranges of Betas. There were no tests or grades, and Busch provided problems of different difficulty that let students work at their own level and pace.

Chris Hall, a contractor in Dept. 4126, says he graduated in geosciences 25 years ago, “so it was a bit of a challenge to get back to that type of math.”

“Then the light started to flicker on and stay on,” he says. “It was fun — challenging, but fun.”

Chris says the course broadened his perspective on safety. “I take all the radiation training, but this was much more comprehensive,” he says. “And it was a lot more interesting to understand not just how radioactive material decays but how and why certain isotopes are used for certain experiments, and why certain thresholds can be reached or not reached. It was valuable.”

Jamie Arnold, a mechanical engineer who worked in explosives and rocket testing, recently transferred to Nuclear Engineering & Maintenance Dept. 1385. “My background is technical but didn’t necessarily lend itself to what we do here,” he says. “This course gave me a really good overview and better understanding of what the nuclear engineers can do and why. I was learning from the first day even though I’ve been in engineering my whole career.”

Shawn did not bring a nuclear background to the course. “It was tough, but in a good way,” he says. “It was totally new content outside my profession of organizational learning. Sophomore-level nuclear engineering — it posed challenges for me. But in the end I understood more. It helped me listen differently. We were not expected to be experts, just more knowledgeable about the fundamentals.”

Kelsey Curran, a contractor in Dept. 4126, says she enjoyed digging into the how and why of nuclear reactions. “I’m not a nuclear engineer so it was great to get a more in-depth understanding of that field,” she says. “I came away with a better knowledge base to ask more in-depth technical questions and have a better base for understanding. I enjoyed the opportunity to connect with both academia and other organizations at Sandia to expand my knowledge and understanding of nuclear engineering.”

Stronger relationship with UNM

The course built relationships within and between organizations, Shawn says. “What better way to share what we do than in a class like this where we get together on a regular basis,” he says. “A lot of us interacted but didn’t really know each other. You start putting names to faces and learn more about people across the Labs.”

Warren says the course met his expectations and will help the organization. “We want to reach people in quality assurance, materials management, document control, and other fields so they can feel plugged into the nuclear part of the organization,” he says. “People can be better at what they do if they know more about the end product.”

Dave says a goal of the course was to strengthen Sandia’s relationship with UNM. “There should be a very strong connection between the UNM nuclear engineering program and Tech Area 5,” he says. “This was an opportunity to leverage their skills in teaching and educating our staff.”

The course was successful enough that Warren and Dave say they will look at offering more classes, some more technical and others less. Busch says he would welcome the chance to teach more at Sandia. “It was a great experience, a learning experience,” he says. “This was a different audience for me. They had questions I had never thought about. It was fun.”

The final class featured tours of two nuclear reactors used in research, the Annular Core Research Reactor (ACRR) and the Sandia Pulsed Reactor/Critical Experiments (SPR/CX). Lonnie Martin (1381) at ACRR and John Ford (1381) at SPR/CX talked to and showed the class in detail how the reactors work. “It helped bring together a lot of what we were talking about in the course,” Shawn says. “We were able to place everything in context.”

Jamie says his takeaway was a better understanding of how his group’s work applied to the rest of the Tech Area 5 organization. “I could see the types of things we were designing and maintaining and how that actually makes a difference in the experiments taking place,” he says. “After this course I wondered if maybe I’d chosen the wrong degree. I was surprised at how interesting nuclear engineering could be.”



-- Nancy Salem

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