Description and Current Mission
The Nevada National Security Site (N2S2) is 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, NV, at its closest point, and occupies a 1,350 sq-mi area. The facility is operated by National Security Technologies, LLC, which is a joint venture between Northrop Grumman Corporation, AECOM, CH2M Hill, and Nuclear Fuel Services. NNSA is the DOE ‘landlord’ for the entire N2S2, but other DOE offices operate facilities there. NNSA has about 3.4 million sq-ft of building space at N2S2 and employs about 2,085 personnel in weapons-related activities. According to the 2009 Budget, NNSA plans to spend $274 million for nuclear weapons activities at the Nevada National Security Site in 2009.
Historically, the site was called the Nevada Test Site and was used for testing nuclear weapons- first aboveground and later underground. The U.S. has not performed a full-scale nuclear weapon test since 1992, but NNSA maintains the ability to conduct one within 36 months. According to NNSA, it must exercise its capability for nuclear testing by conducting subcritical experiments. These are experiments that result in a small amount of nuclear fission, but in which no self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction occurs. Through these and other experiments, at N2S2 and elsewhere, NNSA submits nuclear and nonnuclear materials to high pressures and temperatures to gather data for improving its computer simulation models.
NNSA also stores Category I/II quantities of special nuclear materials (SNM)- quantities of Pu or HEU of high (Category I) or moderate (Category II) strategic significance- from prior weapons programs at the Nevada national Security Site. N2S2 also has facilities to dispose of low-level radioactive waste from throughout the weapons complex. In addition, NNSA maintains a capability at N2S2 to dispose of a damaged nuclear weapon or an improvised nuclear device should it come into possession of one.
NNSA’s December 19, 2008 Record of Decision (ROD) on Complex Transformation would make N2S2 a ‘Center of Excellence for High-Hazard Testing and Experimentation’. NNSA plans to transfer several existing facilities to N2S2 from other sites including the Annular Core Research Reactor, the Aerial Cable Facility, a high velocity sled track from SNL-NM, and test facilities from the Hardened Engineering Test Building at LLNL. NNSA has already relocated a large pulsed power facility (ATLAS) from LANL to N2S2, which it operated briefly and then shut down, and is in the process of moving several critical assemblies from SNL-NM and LANL to N2S2. The preferred option in NNSA’s Final SPEIS on Complex Transformation calls for the agency eventually to relocate all hydrodynamic testing from LLNL and LANL to new facilities at the Nevada Nuclear Security Site, but NNSA did not consider that issue in detail it its environmental analysis, and thus may not take any implementing actions in that direction until it does. In addition, NNSA plans to move large quantities of SNM from SNL-NM and LLNL and temporarily store it at N2S2, while it builds permanent storage facilities elsewhere.
Major NNSA Facilities at N2S2
The ‘U1a Complex’ is a deep underground laboratory consisting of horizontal tunnels, each about one-half mile in length. NNSA uses U1a primarily for subcritical experiments, which are experiments with very small amounts of nuclear yield, but for which there is no sustained nuclear chain reaction.
The ‘Joint Actinide Shock Physics Experimental Research’ (JASPER) is a two-stage gas gun in which a projectile is fired at a target that usually contains special nuclear material. NNSA uses the JASPER to study the properties of plutonium and other materials at high temperatures and pressure and to collect data on materials’ response to the intense conditions created.
The ‘Big Explosives Experimental Facility’ (BEEF) is by far the largest explosive testing facility in the complex. It is used for hydrodynamic tests, weapons physics experiments, development of shaped-charges, and ‘render-safe’ experiments, which study how to disarm nuclear weapons of unknown design. It is certified for explosions of up to 70,000 lbs of TNT.
‘ATLAS ‘is a large capacitor bank for electrical pulse power experiments that can deposit considerable electrical energy into a cylindrical metal shell. This produces an intense magnetic field that implodes the shell, directing a high-pressure pulse onto targets inside of it. In 1995, NNSA billed ATLAS as one of three ‘critical’ facilities in its plan for stockpile stewardship. But, after completion at LANL in August 2000, this facility operated only briefly before it was disassembled in 2002 and shipped to the N2S2, where in 2005 it was reassembled at a cost of $21 million, and used for only 10 experiments before being ‘mothballed’ by NNSA in March 2006.
The ‘Device Assembly Facility’ (DAF) was built in the 1980s to assemble nuclear devices for testing at the N2S2. However, the U.S. stopped nuclear testing before the facility could become operational. The DAF is a collection of more than 30 individual steel-reinforced buildings connected by a rectangular corridor. The entire complex is below grade, covered with compacted earth, and spans an area of 120,000 sq-ft. Its remote location and underground design make it the most secure facility in the NNSA complex. However, it is a facility in search of a mission. NNSA currently fabricates targets and test equipment for subcritical experiments at the DAF and stores SNM removed from other sites. In addition, NNSA is moving several critical assemblies from TA-18 at LANL to the DAF to create a ‘Criticality Experiments Facility’ (CEF).
Source: Transforming the U.S. Strategic Posture and Weapons Complex For Transition to a Nuclear Weapons-Free World, Nuclear Weapons Complex Consolidation Policy Network, April 2009.
The members of the Nuclear Weapons Complex Consolidation Policy Network include Nuclear Watch New Mexico along with national organizations: the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Project On Government Oversight; Tri-Valley CAREs, near the Lawrence Livermore National Lab; the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, near the Kansas City Plant; and JustPeace of Texas, near the Pantex Plant.
Building the Atom Bomb- The Full Story of the Nevada Test Site
From 1951, over four decades, the US government carried out almost a thousand nuclear tests at this test site, earning it the nickname of the “most bombed place on Earth”. The Guardian has done an excellent interactive documentary of the Nevada Test Site- precursor to the Nevada National Security Site- with a series of video segments composed of archival footage. See the interactive presentation.