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Sandia shows off new testing complex

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Gen. Frank G. Klotz of the National Nuclear Security Administration, left, Sandia National Laboratories President Paul Hommert, Lawrence Livermore lab director William Goldstein and Los Alamos lab head Charlie McMillan stand next to Sandia's underground centrifuge. The centrifuge test complex and six other Sandia facilities received a $100 million upgrade to improve efforts to extend the life of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Gen. Frank G. Klotz of the National Nuclear Security Administration, left, Sandia National Laboratories President Paul Hommert, Lawrence Livermore lab director William Goldstein and Los Alamos lab head Charlie McMillan stand next to Sandia’s underground centrifuge. The centrifuge test complex and six other Sandia facilities received a $100 million upgrade to improve efforts to extend the life of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Sandia National Laboratories showed off a $100 million makeover of its nuclear weapons testing facilities Thursday to Gen. Frank G. Klotz, the new administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The facilities allow Sandia to test components in nuclear weapons under conditions ranging from intense fire and extreme vibration to the pressure of gravitational force as rockets re-enter the atmosphere and the shock of impact against targets at hundreds of miles per hour.

“Often this work goes unnoticed and unheralded, but Americans’ security in good part depends on what’s done here,” Klotz said. “These facilities are critical to ensure that the nation’s nuclear arsenal remains safe, secure and effective.”

Sandia National Laboratories recently completed renovation and modernization of this centrifuge, which creates gravitational pressure similar to a rocket's re-entry into the atmosphere. (Randy Montoya/Courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories)

Sandia National Laboratories recently completed renovation and modernization of this centrifuge, which creates gravitational pressure similar to a rocket’s re-entry into the atmosphere. (Randy Montoya/Courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories)

Touring the testing sites along with the directors of Sandia, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore laboratories, Klotz said the upgrades are a critical part of government efforts to extend the life of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Many of the facilities were built decades ago and desperately needed revitalization and modernization, Klotz told reporters following the tour.

“Some of these facilities date back to the Manhattan Project, and others to the 1950 and ’60s,” he said. “Equipment becomes obsolete.”

Sandia upgraded seven different facilities over more than a decade at a total cost of about $100 million, or about $4 million less than was budgeted by Congress.

The overhaul included a $15 million modernization of Sandia’s 10,000-foot rocket sled track, where things such as the B61 nuclear bomb are tested for high-velocity impacts, aerodynamic performance and integrity under extreme acceleration.

“It allows for testing at up to a couple thousand miles per hour, although it’s usually done at 200 to 300 miles per hour,” said Dennis Miller, senior manager of Sandia’s Validation and Qualification Group. “The B61-12, which is one of the major weapons in the nuclear modernization program, is scheduled for testing this summer.”

Mike Beabout works on a test track inside Sandia's mechanical shock facility, which was recently upgraded along with other nuclear weapon test sites at the lab. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Mike Beabout works on a test track inside Sandia’s mechanical shock facility, which was recently upgraded along with other nuclear weapon test sites at the lab. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Other upgrades included modernization of the lab’s thermal test complex, where weapons components are subject to fire and heat that can reach more than 1,000 degrees centigrade, or close to melting levels, Miller said.

Sandia’s mechanical shock facility, where components are subject to harsh impact testing, and a centrifuge complex, which creates intense gravitational pressure, also were overhauled.

All the facilities help demonstrate that nuclear weapon components and systems can withstand the extreme environments that are encountered during transportation, launch, re-entry and impact.

“The data we gather from these large-scale tests validate the computer models that are used to more fully understand and predict the performance of the weapon systems,” Miller said.

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