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          Front Page




Nukes Undergo Stress Test

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
    COYOTE CANYON— If you want to know how well your nuclear weapons are going to perform under stress, sometimes you have to bang them around a little.
    That's what Sandia National Laboratories researchers did a year ago in a recently revealed test to see how U.S. nuclear weapons perform under some of the most arduous conditions they might face in a real-world war.
    The test slammed a specially rigged B61 nuclear bomb into the ground in what a lab publication described as "worst-case testing."
    Nuclear weapons scientists have dropped similarly rigged bombs from aircraft at the Tonopah Test Range in the remote Nevada desert for years.
    The new test, done at Sandia's Aerial Cable Facility, allows more precise control, said Marcey Abate, manager of Sandia's Stockpile Evaluation Department, in an interview.
    The test is part of one of Sandia's primary jobs— ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, Abate said.
    In a brief discussion in Sandia's annual glossy "Labs Accomplishments" publication and subsequent interviews, officials pulled the curtain back a bit on the normally highly classified work involved in testing and maintaining nuclear weapons.
    Located in Coyote Canyon in the Manzano Mountains southeast of Albuquerque, the Aerial Cable Test Facility tests shipping containers— especially nuclear materials shipping containers— by dropping them from substantial heights, simulating extreme accident scenarios.
    The test item is suspended from one of several heavy steel cables strung across a narrow canyon and dropped.
    For higher speed collisions, the object can be pulled to the ground using a rope run through a pulley and attached to a rocket sled, said Jeff Cherry, the Sandia engineer in charge of the test area.
    That's what the researchers did in March 2005 for the weapon test.
    The model of the B61 being tested— a nuclear earth penetrator called the B61-11— is a key piece of the U.S. stockpile.