May 20, 2008
Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
Federal officials on Monday announced the completion of a long-delayed machine at Los Alamos National Laboratory built to X-ray nuclear weapons parts.
National Nuclear Security Administration deputy chief Robert Smolen called the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrotest Facility "an incredible scientific and engineering achievement."
That is a stark contrast to the day in 2003 when officials realized the machine, built at a cost of $300 million, did not work.
Monday's announcement marks the successful completion of a $90 million effort to tear the machine apart and rebuild it to fix the problems discovered in 2003.
DARHT, as the machine is known, uses powerful X-ray beams to take pictures of mock nuclear weapons as they are being detonated.
The pictures allow weapons designers to study the details of the early stages of a weapon's explosion without conducting a full nuclear test.
Monday's announcement marks the formal decision by NNSA to give the project a "completed" stamp of approval.
It is also a major accomplishment for the team responsible for the project's completion, said Mary Hockaday, deputy associated lab director for nuclear weapons physics.
"There were a lot of people who told us we couldn't do it," Hockaday said in a telephone interview Monday.
The machine is massive. Two long halls, each two thirds the length of a football field, hold equipment that generates a massive X-ray beams.
Firing the beams at right angles gives scientists a three-dimensional picture of the nuclear device being tested.
The first X-ray beam was completed in 1999 and works well. It was the second beam, which is more powerful than the first, that failed when it was first turned on in 2003.
Hockaday said testing shows that the second X-ray machine now works at full power. Now that NNSA has signed off on the machine's completion, Los Alamos workers will begin preparing for the first full-scale test using both X-ray beams, according to Hockaday. That is scheduled for September or October, she said.
[Further information on DARHT can be downloaded here.]