Berkeley, CA — Full-fledged nuclear tests are off-limits but scientists quietly continue to test plutonium’s power by exploding small, potent packages 1,000 feet beneath the Nevada desert.
Since 1997, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have unleashed a series of tests – called Bagpipe, Oboe, Clarinet – attempting to gain new insight into how plutonium behaves under extreme conditions.
Next in the series is Piano, a test so powerful scientists may abandon their cost-cutting measure of confining the explosives to a 55-gallon barrel lowered into an underground alcove. They suspect Piano would tear through the inch-thick steel skin of a barrel, so the experiment may be detonated directly in the alcove, which then would be sealed.
The tests are allowed under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty because they are subcritical, meaning no critical mass is formed and there is no chain reaction.
The idea is to monitor the nation’s nuclear stockpile without actually using the weapons. The plutonium, some of which comes from old weapons, is “shocked” by a high-explosive detonation that reproduces the pressures and temperatures that occur when a nuclear device is detonated. Data obtained through high-speed cameras and laser holography are used to refine the supercomputer codes that simulate full explosions.
The test site, about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, includes a complex of tunnels and alcoves, which are about the size of a two-car garage and are known as zero rooms from the expression “ground zero.”
An article from this month’s edition of Livermore’s in-house “Science and Technology Review” describes the “downhole environment” as “surprisingly comfortable, with well-lit rooms, concrete floors, tall ceilings and lunchrooms.”
Scientists with the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico also have a designated testing area at the Nevada Test Site and conduct experiments about every 15 months.
Livermore scientists have been testing more frequently, since the barrels allow several shots in the same alcove, reducing costs from $20 million to $2 million. The Piano test is scheduled for next year.