Military

Sandia drops nuclear warhead ... in the name of safety

The W88 ALT 370 warhead was dropped from a crane to simulate a loading accident
The W88 ALT 370 warhead was dropped from a crane to simulate a loading accident
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The W88 ALT 370 warhead was dropped from a crane to simulate a loading accident
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The W88 ALT 370 warhead was dropped from a crane to simulate a loading accident

Dropping a nuclear warhead may not seem like a particularly bright idea, but earlier this year Sandia National Laboratories did just that. As part of the US government’s Life Extension Program (LEP) for its nuclear arsenal, the inert W88 ALT 370 warhead was dropped from a crane in New Mexico onto a slab of concrete to test the updated design’s safety.

The United States hasn't fielded a new nuclear weapon since 1988 and its deterrent arsenal is the oldest in the world. In order to ensure that the current inventory of warheads remain safe and effective for another 20 to 30 years, the National Nuclear Security Administration is carrying out a program of inspecting, refurbishing, and updating the stockpile. As part of this effort, Sandia carried out a series of tests this year on the W88’s radar arming and fusing system, as well as drop tests to simulate a loading accident involving the warhead.

The purpose of the tests was to determine how well the modifications to the warhead work, as well as gathering data for computer modeling for further updates and simulations of various accident scenarios. In the first test, the Critical Radar Arming and Fuzing Test (CRAFT), an unarmed W88 was launched in June by a Trident II missile from an Ohio-class nuclear submarine with the goal of seeing how the radar operated at hypersonic re-entry speeds, which generate ionized plasma that can interfere with radar.

The second test was conducted in July at Sandia’s 85-foot Drop Tower Facility. Its purpose was to see if the warhead could remain safe after a fall similar to one that might occur during a loading or shipping accident. In real life, there would be no chance of a nuclear explosion, and the warhead would not be expected to function afterward, but there is concern that radioactive or toxic materials might be exposed should the warhead’s casing crack.

Sandia says that this is the first drop test conducted on a W88 warhead since 1988. The shock and vibration data will be used to update its design specifications for later modifications and to simulate other accidents that might occur, but have not been tested in real life.

The W88 is one of the United State’s primary nuclear weapons. With a yield of 475 kilotons, it’s designed to be small enough for as many as 14 to be fitted in a MIRV configuration atop a Trident II missile, though only eight are carried on each launcher under the terms of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty.

Sandia and its partners are currently evaluating the results from both sets of tests, though the company says that the radar functioned as expected.

Source: Sandia

10 comments
Gaëtan Mahon
I know... Better safe than sorry but wouldn't you expect anyone working on something like that to be very careful not to drop one during assembly? I mean... It's not like your average Job where you accidentally drop a wrench. While I doubt for one of these setting off you at least render it unusable and thus wasted millions of Taxpayer Money °_°
Mel Tisdale
It's nice to know that the radar activated detonator functions satisfactorily. I just hope that it isn't activated until it begins re-entry otherwise any mid-flight intercept will quite likely trigger the weapon instead kinetically destroying it, leaving the non-combatants below to cope with the results of a massive EMP, not to mention a significant blast wave. Of course it the intercept hits it, but does not trigger it, then those same non-combatants will have to cope with radioactive debris scattered far and wide. I can understand some nations supporting nuclear weapons, but not those whose citizens would likely be under the flight path of any missiles carrying them. 'Turkeys voting for Christmas' comes to mind.
Michiel Mitchell
Taxes spent on a Nuke, is taxes spent in the worst possible way imaginable...
Art Toegemann
better if the money were spent on actual life extension
Gregg Eshelman
That was the stupidest part of "Broken Arrow". They are trapped in a mine with a live nuclear warhead that is about to explode. They have a 2,000 foot deep mine shaft. Do they roll the warhead into the shaft so the impact at the bottom will damage it to where it can't explode? No! They gently lower it down in the elevator then manage to swim out an underground river without drowning. In the movie "The Peacemaker" a nuclear initiator (a small nuclear bomb used to set off a much larger one) is defused using a knife. All it required was getting to the outer explosive shell which is precisely shaped to uniformly compress the nuclear materials. Damage that shell and the interior compression wave will no longer be symmetrical and there will be no nuclear reaction. Just popping a few rounds into the core from a pistol or rifle would work just as well. "Do not shoot at the thermo-nuclear warheads." Not because you might make them explode, it's because you could render them harmless.
Noel K Frothingham
Never 'harmless', Gregg. Less lethal, perhaps, but never harmless.
Brian M
@Gregg - Probably still a good idea not shoot at the nuclear weapon - Suspect even the conventional triggering explosive might hurt if you were close by and it went off, not to mention radioactive or other leaks that might occur from a well placed shot!
Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
Better to get rid of them in the first place. Saves money and a lot of headache. A few hundred is more enough for nuclear detterence.
nutcase
"nuclear warhead life extension" is the ultimate oxymoron.
Slowburn
With Putin's nuclear saber rattling it is nice to see Americas weapons are being maintained.
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