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NNSA draws on weapons program expertise to enhance nuclear proliferation detection R&D

The attributes of a high explosive test (left) are closely predicted in a computer modeling capability (center) that produces a temperature map (right) of the hot matter and an eventual observed signature.

Countries on the path to developing nuclear weapons conduct non-nuclear explosives testing to develop confidence in nuclear weapon designs and their weapon components without using fissile material. 

These tests, which vary in purpose, materials, and energy yield, generate unique signatures or observables that serve as clues regarding the sophistication of the device tested, the maturity of a country’s nuclear weapons program, and sometimes, the intent behind the tests. 

NNSA’s Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, Research and Development program developed a project to combine advanced physics design codes with new models to enhance U.S. capabilities to monitor and analyze foreign non-nuclear explosives tests.

Since the United States ended its explosive nuclear testing program in 1992, it has relied on computational modeling and simulations to ensure the performance, safety, and reliability of the nuclear stockpile. These efforts present an opportunity for NNSA’s Research and Development program to advance capabilities for detecting signs of non-nuclear testing that indicate early proliferation efforts.

Over the past two years, NNSA’s nuclear proliferation detection program has sponsored research efforts that tie the observable impacts of high-explosive tests to activities associated with a nuclear weapons program. 

Through their combined expertise, scientists at NNSA’s Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories have jointly developed predictive, end-to-end modeling capabilities that can help differentiate weapons development from conventional high explosive tests. 

Researchers have developed a science-based simulation framework to model the characteristics and signatures of a non-nuclear test device, from early detonation to late-time combustion, to identify key observable impacts based on the device design. The modeling predictions are then tested against actual data collected from hydrodynamic tests conducted at the Nevada National Security Site.

One of the key objectives of the program is to have a modeling capability that will help NNSA’s partners determine whether a test was merely a conventional, high-explosive test or one of nuclear proliferation concern. NNSA’s investment serves the dual purpose of advancing both the nonproliferation and stockpile stewardship missions.

Learn about the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation’s latest work.