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Scorpius is being poised to make a sting in stockpile stewardship

/discover/features/mission-focus/scorpiusasset-ownerDiana Del Mauro, Scott FaulkNotestypebreadcrumbScorpius is being poised to make a stingsite://Green/discover/features/mission-focus/scorpiusGreenscorpiusScorpius is being poised to make a sting in stockpile stewardshipScorpius is being poised to make a sting in stockpile stewardshipScorpius is being poised to make a sting in stockpile stewardshipMay 1, 2018 12:00 AMImage/_assets/images/xtransparent.gifsite://Green/_assets/images/xtransparent.gifGreenxtransparent.gif64/_assets/images/xtransparent.gifsite://Green/_assets/images/xtransparent.gifGreenxtransparent.gifxInternal/mission/nuclear-deterrenceNotesbreadcrumbNuclear Deterrence and Stockpile Stewardshipsite://Green/mission/nuclear-deterrenceGreennuclear-deterrenceDeterrence and Stockpile StewardshipNuclear Deterrence and Stockpile StewardshipNuclear Deterrence and Stockpile StewardshipTom Harper, Chief Information Officer, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Operated by Los Alamos National Security, LLC, for the U.S. Department of EnergyWhile the role and prominence of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy has diminished with the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons continue to provide an essential component of national security.Apr 6, 2018 12:00 AM/_assets/2018/images/radioactive.svgNotessite://Green/_assets/2018/images/radioactive.svgGreenradioactive.svgradioactiveradioactiveradioactiveProtecting Against Nuclear ThreatsInternal/mission/nuclear-threatsNotesbreadcrumbProtecting Against Nuclear Threatssite://Green/mission/nuclear-threatsGreennuclear-threatsProtecting Against Nuclear ThreatsProtecting Against Nuclear Threatsprotection, nuclear, threats, security, scienceTom Harper, Chief Information Officer, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Operated by Los Alamos National Security, LLC, for the U.S. Department of EnergyProtecting against nuclear threatsApr 6, 2018 12:00 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MISSION FOCUS

An induction furnace is used in the plutonium casting process at the TA-55 foundry. You can see the molten plutonium exiting the crucible into a mold. In Nevada experiments, researchers study how plutonium behaves when subjected to extreme pressure from explosively driven shocks.

Above: An induction furnace is used in the plutonium casting process at the TA-55 foundry. You can see the molten plutonium exiting the crucible into a mold. In Nevada experiments, researchers study how plutonium behaves when subjected to extreme pressure from explosively driven shocks.

Scorpius is being poised to make a sting in stockpile stewardship

Los Alamos is leading a federally directed charge to develop a new facility in a lab 1,000 feet underground at the Nevada National Security Site. The plan calls for a new radiographic capability, called Scorpius, to study what happens to plutonium during the final stages of a nuclear weapon implosion.

Pondering plutonium

For decades at the Nevada National Security Site’s U1a Complex, scientists and engineers have performed a variety of tests — some that caused nuclear underground explosions and others that didn’t — for added assurance that the nation’s nuclear weapons deterrent is reliable. Plutonium, a radioactive element discovered in 1940, is a key element of the nation's nuclear stockpile and has been one focal point of these studies as the nuclear arsenal ages.

Researchers have learned a lot about plutonium’s behavior in the early moments of an imploding bomb. In 2014, however, they recognized that they still have questions about plutonium's performance during the extreme conditions late in the implosion, particularly with respect to aging, changes in manufacturing methods, and potentially new design features for enhanced safety and security. These questions revealed the need for new diagnostic capabilities. 

Now, multiple labs are working together in pursuing a portfolio of work called the Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments (ECSE) to address this mission need for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program.

Now, multiple labs are working together in pursuing a portfolio of work called the Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments (ECSE) to address this mission need for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program.

Los Alamos is leading this federally directed charge to develop new diagnostic capabilities at U1a, so that in a few years, scientists can study plutonium in much more detail under the conditions found inside the final stages of a nuclear weapon implosion — but without the nuclear explosion.

“The new diagnostics capabilities will significantly enhance and expand the ability to measure the dynamic behavior of plutonium under weapons-relevant conditions,” said Deputy Subcritical Experiment Project Director Russell Olson (Neutron Science and Technology, P-23).

Early signs of support

ECSE is one of 10 initiatives the nation is pursuing “to ensure the necessary capability, capacity and responsiveness of the nuclear weapons infrastructure and the needed skills of the nuclear enterprise workforce,” according to the U.S. Department of Defense Nuclear Posture Review 2018.

Recent federal budgets have been supportive of ECSE, but the proposed project must clear numerous hurdles before construction can begin. ECSE is on track for achieving Critical Decision 1 (CD-1) early in fiscal year 2019, recognizing the completion of conceptual design and a valid cost range.

“The current plan is to have the radiographic capability available in fiscal year 2025,” said Dave Funk of the Accelerator Development Project Office at Los Alamos.

Funk heads the Advanced Sources and Detectors Project team, which was formally created in 2017 as a partnership of Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia national laboratories with the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS). The team is responsible for developing Scorpius — the radiographic diagnostic — and integrating it with the U1a underground lab. 

Enter Scorpius

Named “Scorpius” after the brightest extrasolar x-ray source visible from Earth, the proposed 20-MeV accelerator will generate x-ray images of subcritical implosion experiments for the nuclear weapons program.

Penetrating radiography is a proven capability for understanding plutonium when it is subjected to extreme pressure from explosively driven shocks (hydrodynamics).

“The Scorpius radiographic capability will be used to examine the late-time behavior of plutonium in high-explosive driven experiments, to quantify the uncertainties that may exist for conditions that are different from those previously tested with underground testing, particularly devices with enhanced safety and security features,” Funk said.

The Lab’s Nuclear and Particle Futures 10-year strategic plan says the ECSE facility “will transform the way the U.S. stockpile is stewarded.”

Opportunities to develop a uniquely skilled workforce will be an important benefit of ECSE, proponents say.

“With a planned lifetime of 30 years, these capabilities will help to train the next generation of experimentalists and weapons designers, ensuring the strength of our deterrent for decades to come,” Funk said. 

The role of Scorpius

Instead of real nuclear tests, scientists and engineers run experiments at U1a and other facilities to obtain data that is used to confirm and modify advanced computer codes in assuring the safety, security and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

Scorpius will be located at U1a, where scientists and engineers have been conducting subcritical experiments since 1995. (Those experiments use high explosives and small amounts of plutonium that remain subcritical in the dynamically compressed state.)

The aim of Scorpius is to provide a radiographic capability, using particle accelerator technology to generate x-rays and to “see” what's happening to plutonium.

Experimental campaigns using Scorpius will radiograph subcritical implosion experiments that use real plutonium, rather than non-fissile surrogates. That's what makes Scorpius different than the world’s most powerful x-ray machine, the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility (DARHT) accelerator at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

DARHT has been used for hydrodynamic implosion tests since 2000 and continues to take high-speed images of mock nuclear devices imploding at speeds greater than 10,000 miles an hour. No fissionable nuclear materials are used in DARHT tests. 

Los Alamos is leading a federally directed charge to develop a new facility at the Nevada National Security Site to study what happens to plutonium during the final stages of a nuclear weapon implosion.

New abilities for new tests

Nevada National Security Site’s underground laboratory will be substantially modified to make way for Scorpius experiments — but that's not all.

There's another kind of high-explosive-driven test called Neutron Diagnosed Subcritical Experiments (NDSE) that is part of the larger picture, and it will be in the underground lab too. With it comes a new type of tool — one that can make measurements that haven’t been made since the cessation of underground testing.

"The goal," Funk said, "is to be able to make NDSE and Scorpius radiographic measurements simultaneously, using data from both diagnostics to further enhance our understanding of plutonium hydrodynamics and to improve our simulation capabilities.”

Los Alamos will be heavily involved in both efforts. According to current plans, Los Alamos will develop the accelerator, detector and global systems for Scorpius — plus develop the NDSE diagnostic tool — while overseeing the integration of all elements as the project moves forward.

NDSE will provide insights into the conditions inside exploding nuclear weapons. “In these tests," Funk explained, "an experimental device using plutonium is driven high explosively to near criticality. At the appropriate time, a pulse of neutrons is used to interrogate the device by inducing fissions in the device that decay in a manner that allows the determination of the device’s neutronic reactivity, which can then be used to compare with simulations of the device."