NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Nuclear Testing Via Supercomputer

November 30, 1998

With the Cold War now receding into memory, the shrinking ranks of nuclear weapons designers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory are using a supercomputer for simulation testing of the nation's remaining nuclear warheads.

  • The U.S. stopped developing nuclear weapons in 1989 and ceased underground testing in 1992 -- leaving about 8,000 warheads in the U.S. stockpile.
  • So the scientists entrusted with maintaining these weapons have created a simulated testing ground, using a massive computer that can perform more calculations in one second than a hand-held calculator can in 3 million years.
  • The program, called "Stockpile Stewardship," utilizes the computer to produce a three-dimensional likeness of how a device would perform if exploded -- placing the scientists, virtually speaking, inside the bomb to observe the heat, light and chaos produced.
  • The information is crucial because by 2004 the average age of the weapons in the stockpile will be nearly 20 years -- or the expected lifespan of many of the weapons at the time they were constructed.

Lending urgency to the task is the fact that most of the scientists who originally developed the devices will no longer be around in the next 10 to 20 years. While figures on how many of them are still alive is classified, experts say the number represents "only a handful."

The U.S. spends $4.5 billion a year on the "Stockpile Stewardship" project.

Source: Mark Leibovich, "Armageddon Moves Inside the Computer," Washington Post, November 28, 1998.


Browse more articles on Government Issues