Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor Vol. 26 No. 35
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Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor
Article 5 of 10
September 15, 2022

U1a mining expansion to wrap in 2026, NNSA says

By ExchangeMonitor

The second and larger of two nearly round-the-clock mining projects in Nevada to expand the main U.S. zero-yield, nuclear-weapon test site should wrap up in 2026, the National Nuclear Security Administration said this week.

The agency approved the final design for the U1a Complex Enhancement Project (UCEP) 20 subproject June 23, about a week before the Honeywell-led prime contractor at the Nevada National Security Site wrapped up the smaller UCEP 10 project, which was aimed at providing access to the new underground test lab about 1,000 feet beneath the desert.

UCEP 20, which will have hundreds of workers on the job 20 hours a day, involves developing existing facilities and new drifts at U1a and constructing the infrastructure to support the Advanced Sources and Detectors radiography operations. A new experimental area also will be built, with the combined projects’ costs ringing in at an estimated $560 million or so, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said through a spokesperson.

That is not much higher than estimates from the NNSA’s 2023 budget request, which said UCEP 20 would cost about $525 million and UCP-10 would cost about $50 million. 

The NNSS annual budget has grown in recent years from $480 million to $920 million in fiscal 2022, primarily because of the UCEP project. 

The centerpiece of the overhauled U1a complex will be a billion-dollar x-ray camera developed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory and called Scorpius. The device will replace the lab’s current Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility, which was built around 2000, as the newest means of creating images of the subcritical experiments. 

In subcritical experiments, personnel essentially blow up small pieces of plutonium with conventional explosives to study the fissile material’s behavior at the threshold of a nuclear chain reaction.

The W80-4 air-launched cruise missile warhead, the first copy of which will be ready in September 2027, NNSA recently said, was scheduled by the agency to be among the first weapons evaluated by Scorpius.

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