National Nuclear Security Administration

Science is the nucleus of NNSA

October 16, 2017

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Nuclear Science Week is an international celebration of the atomic world. Just as the nucleus is at the center of the atom, nuclear science is at the heart of NNSA’s national security missions.

Monday: Powering the Nuclear Navy

The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program plays an essential role in efficiently powering nautical deployments around the globe. More than 45 percent of the Navy’s major combatants are nuclear-powered, including 10 aircraft carriers, 57 attack submarines, and 14 strategic submarines. The reactor cores in modern nuclear-powered vessels last for the life of the ship, which can be more than 40 years. The advanced nuclear technology that makes this feat of science possible comes from the Naval Nuclear Laboratory.

Securing special nuclear materials

Tuesday: Securing special nuclear materials

Through its Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, NNSA works closely with a wide range of international partners, key federal agencies, the National Laboratories, and the private sector to secure, safeguard, and/or dispose of dangerous nuclear and radiological material, and detect and control the proliferation of related nuclear weapons technology and expertise. NNSA has removed or confirmed the disposition of more than 6,200 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium from 45 countries and Taiwan – enough material for more than 245 nuclear weapons.

Wednesday: Replicating nuclear conditions with applied physics experiments

In the absence of underground nuclear explosive testing, high-energy physics research experiments are conducted in the name of stockpile stewardship. The extreme temperatures and pressures created mimic the conditions of a nuclear reaction. Developing expertise in working with special nuclear materials has led to other big discoveries: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has co-discovered six elements on the Periodic Table.

Thursday: Replicating nuclear conditions in a virtual environment

The Advanced Simulation and Computing Program provides the capabilities required to digitally reproduce the complexities of nuclear physics, weapons components, and the weapons systems as a whole. These sophisticated computational models are run on incredibly powerful computers and allow NNSA to determine the impact of design changes and aging on the nuclear weapons stockpile. ASCI Red at Sandia National Laboratories was the world’s first teraFLOPS supercomputer, which means that it could perform 1 trillion floating point operations per second. The 40 PetaFLOPS Trinity machine at Los Alamos National Laboratory is NNSA’s current flagship computer.

Nuclear-powered space exploration

Friday: Nuclear-powered space exploration

Los Alamos National Laboratory designed and built a one-of-a-kind laser instrument known as ChemCam, which is installed on NASA’s Curiosity rover. The photon gun is capable of firing intense pulses of laser light at nearby targets—rocks and soil—on the surface of Mars. The science team then analyzes the particular wavelengths produced as a small portion of the sample is vaporized and determines the sample’s elemental composition. Curiosity, a roving laboratory, is powered by a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which converts the heat released by radioactive decay into electricity.