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The Obama Administration’s “3+2” strategy for modernizing the nation’s nuclear stockpile over the coming decades is expected to bring a more extensive workload to the weapons complex, and especially at Los Alamos National Laboratory, National Nuclear Security Administration defense programs chief Don Cook said at a conference the lab held this week. Speaking at the lab’s second “Primer” conference to commemorate its 70th anniversary, Cook said the lab was facing a “massive challenge” as it will be tasked with ramping up production on plutonium pits—from 10 pits in 2019, to 20 in 2020 and 30 by 2021; while aiding in the development of interoperable warheads that are expected to help reduce the number of families of nuclear weapons as a path to future efficiencies. Three interoperable warheads would be used on ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Two air-delivered bombs would fill out the revised stockpile.

The bomber-delivered B-61 would undergo most of its life extension program (LEP) and a new warhead would be developed to replace the current W-80 for the air-launched cruise missile. The overall modernization program will take 40 to 50 years to achieve, Cook said. “It is not for the weak of heart,” he said. The challenges facing the lab “exceed anything this lab has been called upon to do in the last 20 years,” he said.

Among the major scientific tests for Los Alamos, in addition to tripling pit-production capacity in three years and the LEP, Cook said, would be to take the nuclear weapons pits designed for “conventional high explosives” and wrap “insensitive high explosives” around them, making the weapons safer under a greater range of potential hazards, all while carrying out the prescribed life extension upgrades and refurbishments on a demanding schedule. Second, Los Alamos would handle the technical leadership for scaled subcritical experiments at the U1a Complex at the Nevada Test Site. “The last test at NTS obtained more data than the 25 previous ones,” Cook said. Another challenge would be to develop exascale high performance computing, a thousand times faster than the current petascale speeds. “No clear path exists today,” Cook said, noting it would be “like changing engines on an airplane while flying.”

‘Money Follows Vision’

Finally, Cook said the laboratory would be tasked with “technical leadership in understanding materials at the mesoscale and their behavior in extreme environments.” That’s an attractive assignment for LANL and exactly the kind of work its proposed signature facility MaRIE (Materials Radiation Interactions in Extremes) is meant to perform. “Money follows vision,” said Cook, paying a special tribute to LANL’s advanced concept of studying materials in ways that will someday allow scientists to design materials at the atomic level, rather than making do with the best materials that happen to be available. “In aggregate these six challenges exceed anything this lab has been called upon to do in the last 20 years,” Cook concluded.

Cook also noted there would need to be some new investments for “repurposing” the lab’s Plutonium Facility and making maximum use of the recently completed Radiological Laboratory/Utility/Office Building, with the addition of several underground modules. The lab has proposed a “modular” approach to strengthening its plutonium capabilities that would replace the deferred Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility project. “I don’t know if there would be two, or three [modules],” he said, adding that safety challenges and seismic risks at PF-4 could be reduced by relieving the facility of some of the old programmatic requirements from the Cold War work there and moving radiological material into more suitable spaces.

The conference, which mimicked the first “Primer” set of lectures theoretical physicist Robert Serber held in April 1943 on what was known at the time about building an atomic bomb, was held July 22-23 and also included a keynote speech by Vic Reis, the architect of the Stockpile Stewardship Program; and a Director’s Roundtable, featuring Charles McMillan (2011-present) and three former LANL directors, Pete Nanos (2003-2005), Robert Kuckuck (2005-2006) and Michael Anastasio (2006-2011). Summing up the conference, McMillan said July 24 that Cook’s set of challenges was one of the highlights, “the body of work that we’ve worked on together for the laboratories.” The best thing about the conference, he added, was that it “led to a rich discussion over the last few days which is continuing in the hallways today.” —From staff reports

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