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"In the past you had an absolute arbiter in nature," says Dearborn, the Livermore bomb designer. "In the end you brought everything together and you put it under Nevada and nature told you whether you were doing it correctly, were all the parts good enough."
Now the laser will stand in for nature.
Such virtual tests will become critically important as the weapons in our stockpile age, says Hogan. Hogan is the senior scientist on the NIF, and an affable, gung-ho pitchman for the project.
"Thousands of things have to happen in a weapon for it to work, and they have to happen in order," Hogan says. Over time, some parts of the existing warheads will get too old -- glue becoming brittle, metal parts corroding -- and will have to be replaced. The NIF will help ensure that the replacement parts work as well as the originals.
And the NIF is just one part of the total stewardship package.
The Los Alamos lab is also already building its newest machine, a $190 million device called the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility. Put as simply as possible, it will allow bomb designers to get their best look ever at how conventional explosives behave during the split second when they are going off. A crude analogy would be taking a three-dimensional CAT scan at the precise instant a stick of dynamite explodes so you can analyze the dynamics of the blast.
Knowing exactly how conventional high explosives behave is also crucial to nuclear weapons work, because they provide the first little burst of energy in a warhead, starting the chain reaction that eventually leads to a roiling nuclear blast.
The third major piece of the program is a computer system that will cost at least $800 million and promises to be the most powerful ever built. Parts of it are being assembled already at all the weapons labs. When finished early in the next century, the Advanced Strategic Computing Initiative will comprise a network vastly more powerful and faster than the biggest Cray computer available today. The aim is a system that can perform 100 trillion calculations per second -- 100 teraflops -- according to Randy Christensen, deputy program manager for ASCI at Livermore.
By comparison, a standard desktop computer with a 400 megahertz chip can only perform about 100 million calculations per second.
In the computer's memory will be stored virtually every bit of knowledge that has ever been gleaned about nuclear weapons. All of the data from the past 1,030 nuclear tests will be entered, along with other research. Old bomb designers are even being interviewed before they die and transcripts of their observations and recollections will be in the system. Weapons scientists in California, New Mexico, Nevada, and other locations will be able to swap information, perform research, and run simulations at lightning speeds.
Those are the three primary components of the stewardship program, which has many other smaller pieces as well. Together, they will constitute the mightiest array of science ever brought to bear on the inner workings of nuclear warheads.
Probably far mightier than needed. That is, unless stewardship -- simply maintaining the safety and reliability of the weapons we already have -- is not the only goal.
Often they are called the Monks, or the Nuclear Priests. The appellations reflect a strange, reverential awe that we have for the scientists who design nuclear bombs. So long has their work been shrouded in secrecy, and so staggering are the forces they manipulate, that journalists often slip into religious tones to describe them.
Ray Kidder chuckles when asked if he was a Monk. His work was more theoretical, he explains, not the actual hands-on designing of specific warheads. "I told the Monks how to make nuclear weapons," Kidder says. "I was sort of the invention end rather than the nuts and bolts."
Kidder began working as a weapons researcher at Lawrence Livermore in 1956, and launched the lab's laser research program in the early 1960s. Now 74 and semiretired, he still keeps an office at the lab and maintains a top-secret security clearance. He is one of the old men whose knowledge and insight the labs fear will be lost in a world without full-blown nuclear testing.
But Kidder has become something of a thorn in the lab's side because he believes the Stockpile Stewardship program -- the massive NIF laser and other devices being built -- is wholly unnecessary just to keep the arsenal in good working order.
Say you owned a fleet of cars, and they were getting old. For the sake of argument, say that for some reason you weren't allowed to buy any brand-new cars, you had to make do with the ones on hand. As the belts became brittle, you would put on new ones. When the engines faltered, you would rebuild them, using parts as close as possible to the originals.
There would be no need to rethink the original engineering used to design the cars, or to reinvent the internal combustion engine. The cars would keep working as long as you replaced what was needed.
Why doesn't the same simple reasoning apply to nuclear weapons? Kidder believes it does.