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Sandia lab releases video of nuclear bomb drop test

By RYAN BOETEL | Albuquerque Journal, N.M. | Published: December 21, 2020

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — The U.S. Air Force's newest fighter jet is flying at the speed of sound above the Nevada desert when the F-35A Lightning II's doors open and release a mock version of the country's newest nuclear bomb.

As the inert bomb falls toward Earth, there's a flash of light at the tail of the weapon. It then starts to rapidly corkscrew until it crashes into its target at the Tonopah Test Range.

The test flight was captured in a video recently posted to Sandia National Laboratories' website.

The weapon in many ways is as New Mexican as green chile. The B61 gravity bomb was designed and engineered at Los Alamos in the 1960s. Now, more than 50 years later, scientists and engineers at Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories are among those working to give the 13th version of the bomb a multibillion-dollar face-lift.

The two New Mexico labs are the design and engineering labs for the B61-12 Life Extension Program, which has become a decade-long, $10 billion project, by

some estimates. Lab officials said the test conducted this summer, the first in a series of tests with the bomb and the F-35A, marked a major milestone, and the bomb could soon enter the production phase.

The bomb has alarmed some nuclear weapons experts because they fear government leaders could be more likely to use it.

It's a "variable yield" weapon, which means its explosive power can be adjusted, said Stephen Young, the Washington representative in the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The new bomb is also more accurate than previous versions, according to National Nuclear Security Administration.

Charts from the Nuclear Weapon Archive and the Federation of American Scientists show the bomb's explosive power could be as low as 0.3 kiloton. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima had about 15 kilotons of explosive power. The largest bomb in the country's arsenal, the B83, could have as much as 1,200 kilotons of explosive power, according to the charts.

"The risk is that if you have a low-yield option, you might say, 'I'll just use this one small nuclear weapon to solve this problem I have, and it'll be OK, '" Young said. "No. It's not OK. It could cause a chain reaction that you never predicted. Having a low-yield option is militarily useful but politically dangerous."

The design of the bomb has been a significant project for several years at New Mexico's national labs. Thousands of engineers and other employees have worked on the life extension program, said Christine Mitchell, the senior manager at Sandia for the test flight.

The NNSA originally put the estimated cost of the entire Life Extension Program at $7.6 billion, though an independent estimate projected the total cost at about $10 billion, according to a report on the bomb by the Government Accountability Office.

An NNSA spokeswoman said last week that the estimated cost of the project is $8.3 billion.

"The capabilities offered by the B61-12 are important to the United States and our NATO allies and partners, demonstrating our commitment to protecting the homeland, assuring allies and above all, deterring adversaries," the spokeswoman said. "The B61-12 LEP will consolidate four variants of the B61 gravity bomb and improve the safety and security of the weapon."

Work on the project is spread out across six locations, including the two New Mexico labs.

Los Alamos National Laboratory is designing the nuclear explosive package, including producing the detonators and other classified components. Sandia is designing the non-nuclear components and other aspects of the weapons, including the neutron generators, according to the GAO.

The test flight was a critical step in the production of the B61-12 gravity bomb, Mitchell said. The labs posted video of the flight and more information about the test on its website last month.

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The bomb will never be tested with nuclear materials inside because of international treaties, Mitchell said. So the video of the inert bomb dropping into the Nevada desert is as close as the bomb will get to a full-scale test of the weapon.

The video fades to black as soon as the rocket touches the ground, and the size of the target isn't clear.

"I can't go into (describing) the target," said Steven Samuels, the flight test manager. "I can say this test met requirements for the objectives of the test."

Mitchell estimated that the life extension program is about 98% through the testing phase before the nuclear bombs will start being produced. Once completed, the B61-12 will replace four earlier versions of the B61 that still remain in the country's nuclear weapon arsenal, according to an NNSA overview of the program.

Most of the nuclear weapons in America's stockpile were made in the 1950s and 1960s. And part of the country's nuclear arms strategy is to modernize the weapons with new technology, according to the Department of Energy's website.

The report said lower-power nuclear bombs are not intended to "enable nuclear-war fighting," but to serve as a credible deterrent against other countries that have or are developing similar low-yield nuclear weapons.

Sandia officials declined to discuss how powerful the bomb will be or its real-world applications.

"Sandia's job is really to provide scientific and technical expertise to bring high-quality weapons to our national leadership," Mitchell said. "The motivations behind why we're doing this is something Sandia doesn't really speculate on. We really try to keep our heads down, do an excellent engineering job and keep our noses clean of all the political motivations of why we're doing this."

(c)2020 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)
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