Big blast at Los Alamos

Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory recently performed the first liner implosion shot on Atlas; the lab’s pulsed power facility.

This successful experiment demonstrated that the Atlas (Advanced Testing Line for Actinide Separation) facility is ready to support the Laboratory’s research work relating to the certification of the nuclear weapons stockpile.

In the shot, the 650-ton Atlas pulsed-power generator successfully discharged approximately 20 million amperes of current through an aluminium cylindrical shell or liner about the size and shape of a small tin can, causing the liner to implode at very high speeds.

The purpose of this first experiment was to demonstrate Atlas was capable of the implosion quality that had been obtained with an earlier Los Alamos pulsed power machine, Pegasus II. Pegasus II reportedly produced the most uniform, symmetric and controllable implosions ever achieved. The experiment also demonstrated successful delivery of electrical energy at high currents and voltages and successful collection of complex data at the Atlas facility.

Essentially, Atlas is a giant power multiplier using energy that is accumulated slowly and stored in the machine’s capacitor banks for sudden release into a roughly four-inch-diameter liner.

As the electrical current surges through the Atlas machine, it crushes the targets at velocities nearly high enough to escape Earth’s gravity – 22,000 miles per hour or 10 times the speed of a high-powered rifle bullet – and at pressures that occur at millions of times that of Earth’s atmosphere.

During the few millionths of a second that it is operating at full strength, the tremendous electrical output of Atlas is roughly equal to four times the world’s total electric power production.

The Atlas pulsed-power facility was designed as a tool to provide basic physics data suitable for validating the computer codes used for weapon certification and to help scientists improve the models in those codes.

Atlas was conceived in 1993 as part of the Department of Energy’s strategy to maintain the nuclear stockpile without the use of underground nuclear testing. The Atlas construction project began in 1995 with engineering design and component tests. Full-scale assembly began in November 1999 and construction was completed in August 2000.

Under the current plan, the powerful Atlas will conduct approximately 17 physics experiments for the science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program at Los Alamos before being disassembled and moved to the Nevada Test Site in 2002.