As the U.S. government reportedly discusses whether it will conduct America’s first nuclear test in nearly three decades – this is the secret room where scientists take care of the weapons.
A senior government official said last week that the Washington Post deliberations took place during a meeting with members of the highest national security forces.
At the meeting, it was alleged that a member said that “both Russia and China are conducting low-yield underground nuclear tests themselves” and suggested conducting a “rapid test” of US nuclear weapons to help Washington “negotiate”.
But there is already an underground complex in New Mexico, USA, that checks if the weapons are still working in any future conflict, or their multi-billion dollar deterrence could be no more than an empty threat.
Treaties that limit nuclear testing make it difficult to be sure.
So the U.S. military tests the missile shells in a secret underground facility – while one of the fastest supercomputers ever built models the size and destruction of nuclear explosions with hair-raising accuracy.
In 1993 President Bill Clinton said, “To ensure that our nuclear deterrence remains unchallenged under a testing ban, we will explore other ways to maintain our confidence in the safety, reliability, and performance of our own weapons.”
In response to that challenge, scientists from Los Alamos in New Mexico broke the mechanism of a nuclear bomb into two parts.
The first part is the conventional explosive that pushes pieces of radioactive material together so that they reach a critical mass and cause a nuclear explosion.
Those conventional explosives, and the missile chests they carry, are actually regularly tested at the Los Alamos test facility.
The explosives are detonated – in explosions that can sometimes be heard for miles around – to ensure that similar weapons kept in the store are still able to activate a warhead.
Rocket housings are also thrown around in a huge, meticulously designed 10-ton centrifuge to test whether they can withstand the acceleration of 12g to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere above their target.
Dummy warheads weighing over a ton are rotated at one revolution per second to simulate the stress of return.
But the actual destructive nuclear charges themselves are no longer being tested.
Instead, a supercomputer called Trinity – the world’s seventh fastest computer – runs incredibly complex nuclear blast simulations to predict exactly how much destructive power each warhead will unleash.
Victor Reis, former assistant secretary of energy for defense programs at the United States Department of Energy, says simulated nuclear explosions are good enough for now.
He told Gizmodo. “We understand enough about what is happening with the current stock of weapons – they are safe and reliable.”
The U.S. currently has about 3,800 nuclear warheads – the largest being the variable-yield B83 weapon that can be turned to about 1,200 kilotons.
The first tested nuclear weapon – also known as Trinity – had a yield of only 22 kilotons.
Los Alamos has a sister facility – the Lawrence Livermore National Ignition Facility – that duplicates much of its research.
In addition to an ultra-powerful supercomputer used to model a nuclear attack, it also features the most powerful laser ever built.
Located in a football stadium-sized building, the laser is used to generate astronomically high temperatures equivalent to the energies at the heart of a nuclear fusion bomb.
Stopping nuclear weapons testing is not only a positive step towards world peace, it prevents a potential disaster closer to home.
The Hanford Nuclear Reserve produced the plutonium to build Fat Man, the weapon that destroyed Nagasaki in 1945, and countless nuclear weapons ever since.
It is the most polluted place in America today.
Buried in 177 underground storage tanks under the Washington desert, 56 million gallons of radioactive waste is left over from the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
Many of them would leak into the ground.
Dozens of workers in Hanford have become seriously ill from the toxins to which they have been exposed.
According to NBC, some nuclear experts have said that Hanford is “an underground Chernobyl waiting to happen.”
Constantly doing the grim work of adding up the death toll from wars that we may never fight, the Secret Room in Los Alamos also reduces the need for more refined plutonium and makes that “underground Chernobyl” slightly less likely.
For the time being, the results of computers are sufficient for the scientists “but after 20 to 25 years … who knows?” Vic Reis said.
Certain voices in American politics want to see a return to real nuclear testing “to send a message.”
If the U.S. implements all of its current plans to maintain and upgrade its nuclear arsenal, it will cost nearly $ 500 billion over the next ten years, according to a 2019 government estimate.
But in addition, testing – with all its much higher costs, both financial and human – may need to start over.