The engineering-focused facility meets national security needs.
The best way to understand Sandia National Laboratories’ role in the nuclear security enterprise is to think of a car. That’s according to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) former deputy administrator for Defense Programs. Before moving to NNSA, Don Cook spent many years in leadership at Sandia. He also happens to love automobiles.
“Picture a nuclear weapon as a car,” Cook says. “The engine would be designed and created by either Los Alamos or Livermore national laboratories. What Sandia does is build the engine compartment and all the fasteners. Sandia provides the brakes, the wheels, and all of the automotive electronics. Sandia provides the fuel system, although it gets pieces to build that from Savannah River and Kansas City. The actual assembly of the vehicle is done at Pantex. Sandia is the integration part. All of the elements of the car, except for the engine, are provided by Sandia or Sandia working with the plants.”
Located about two hours south of Los Alamos National Laboratory, with its primary facility in Albuquerque and a second lab in Livermore, California, Sandia employs about 15,000 people. The labs also operate at three other sites, including the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada, the Weapons Evaluation Test Laboratory in Texas, and the Kauai Test Site in Hawaii.
Sandia’s Albuquerque facility, which lies within the Kirtland Air Force Base in the southeast part of New Mexico’s largest city, sprawls across nearly 21 square miles of land and contains everything from particle beam accelerators and experimental and engineering nuclear reactors to testing facilities that require large land areas and unusual terrain. Over its nearly 80 years of existence, Sandia’s mission has grown dramatically, but at its core, Sandia is an engineering lab with a systems integration role.
“A system integrator is the organization that gets all the information from all the other labs and sites and then looks at the weapon as a whole,” Cook says. “There are Livermore weapons and there are Los Alamos weapons, but every weapon is a Sandia weapon.”
Modernizing nuclear deterrence
One of those weapons is the B61 thermonuclear gravity bomb, which recently underwent a life extension that consolidated three B61 weapon designs (the B61-3, -4, and -7) into one updated and more accurate design: the B61-12. The B61-12 life extension program refurbished, reused, or replaced the bomb’s nuclear and nonnuclear components. Sandia was responsible for many of the nonnuclear components.
“In addition to design development of nonnuclear components, we completed the highly rigorous qualification, verification, and validation testing to demonstrate that the B61-12 will always work with high reliability when authorized and never function under any other conditions,” says David Wiegandt, a senior manager of Sandia’s B61-12 program.
Sandia’s role in the B61-12 exemplifies how Sandia differs from the other two national laboratories. While Los Alamos and Livermore National Laboratories design the nuclear explosive packages (the car engines) for U.S. nuclear weapons, Sandia designs, develops, and tests the parts and systems that are required to prepare and fire a weapon to military specifications.
“Sandia’s role within the complex is unique,” says Jim Handrock, Sandia Weapons Systems Engineering director. “We have the design engineering responsibility for the nonnuclear components and also the key systems integration role to put all the individual parts together to make sure that everything does what needs to be done to provide the full system to the military.”
A history of engineering and integration
Sandia’s unique responsibility for engineering and integration dates back to the 1945 creation of Z Division at Project Y, the Los Alamos branch of the Manhattan Project (which would eventually become Los Alamos National Laboratory).
Site selection for Z Division—which would handle weapons development, testing, and assembly—began in July 1945, according to Sandia historian Rebecca Ullrich. Los Alamos was getting crowded, and Lab officials sought a location with more space that was near a military base. They eventually chose Albuquerque’s Sandia Base, which would later merge with Kirtland Air Force Base. The word “Sandia” (Spanish for “watermelon”) is a nod to the nearby Sandia Mountains, named for the pink hue they take on as the sun sets.
After World War II, work at Z Division increased as U.S. leaders sought to build up the nation’s weapons stockpile. In 1948, Z Division was reorganized and elevated to a separate branch of Los Alamos, named Sandia Laboratory. The site continued to expand its workforce and facilities to meet demands.
But, according to Ullrich, Norris Bradbury, then director at Los Alamos, had concerns about running two large operations, and on November 1, 1949, Sandia separated from Los Alamos and became an independent engineering lab that would support the design functions of Los Alamos and later Livermore.
“From the very beginning, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore were working from a physics point of view, but Sandia was working on the engineering side,” Ullrich says. “Sandia took on that role and still has that role of being able to assess the stockpile for safety and reliability separate from the design activities.”
Sandia is also responsible for testing many weapons components. “Another element of building a car is safety and survivability in a crash,” Cook refers back to the car analogy. “Sandia does security and safety systems and conducts survivability testing. That’s another element of the Sandia mission.”
“Sandia can test everything they need to test in normal and abnormal environments; they can run a rocket at a very high speed into a wall, drop it, or subject it to fire, unusual temperatures, or hostile environments,” Cook says.
Creating conditions found nowhere else on Earth
One of the ways Sandia tests components is by using a device called the Z Machine that creates conditions found nowhere else on Earth. The machine is the world’s most powerful and efficient laboratory radiation source. One goal of Z is to produce high pressures and densities to test the properties of materials used in nuclear weapons. Another objective is to produce fusion, the joining of two atomic nuclei, which is the process that powers the sun. To fuse nuclei, scientists must force them to collide with one another at extremely high speeds.
“Z uses a method called inertial confinement fusion, which releases fusion energy by heating and compressing a fuel target,” says Daniel Sinars, the director for the Pulsed Power Sciences Center and the Sandia executive for the NNSA’s Inertial Confinement Fusion and Science programs. “The machine takes electrical energy stored over a few minutes and then compresses that electrical energy in both space and time to create a very powerful and short burst of electrical power and energy at the very center of the machine,” he explains. “So we store up energy in the capacitor banks at the perimeter of the machine, it gets discharged, and then we compress it. We have the laser trigger switches so we can pull the energy out basically at the speed of light. For a few fractions of a second, we’re exceeding the total electrical production capacity of the world.”
Sinars says many of the tests conducted with the Z Machine provide insight into what happens in the nuclear explosive package during a detonation and can also represent the hostile conditions produced by an adversary’s nuclear weapons. The machine also produces data used to validate physics models in computer simulations, which are essential to stockpile stewardship—the science-based program that allows researchers to evaluate the health and extend the lifetimes of America’s nuclear weapons without full-scale nuclear testing. “The goal of creating a lot of energy in the laboratory has always been so that you could do some forms of stockpile stewardship outside of an underground weapons test,” Sinars says.
Moving beyond engineering
The development of the Z Machine exemplifies how Sandia has expanded beyond its original engineering role and moved into design-related research. “You can’t separate this kind of science from engineering,” says Stephen Slutz, a Sandia physicist who played a key role in developing an approach to using the Z machine to create magnetized liner inertial fusion, a method to control nuclear fusion that combines a massive jolt of electricity with strong magnetic fields and a powerful laser beam.
“We’re not inventing. We’re using known physical principles and trying to make something happen in nature,” Slutz says. “So, it’s not pure science—it’s kind of a bit on the exotic side of engineering. We’re trying to bend nature to our will—not just discover it.”
One way researchers are using the Z Machine to try to bend nature to their will is by investigating the possibility of harnessing fusion as a commercial energy source. “Fusion energy is challenging, right?” Sinars says. “Can people make it work? A lot of questions there.”
Sinars says Sandia’s next goal is to build a more powerful machine than the 26-year-old Z Machine. He is working with scientists at Los Alamos and Livermore on a proposal for a facility that will be created in the 2030s.
“Our design capabilities and our stewardship capabilities are improving with time because we’re making measurements on facilities like Z,” Sinars says. “That is science being able to do things better, more clearly, more accurately, and allowing us to push the envelope in the future of what might be possible. That’s the discovery process. It’s what makes this constantly interesting.”
A culture of collaboration
For Sinars and his colleagues, the collaborative approach has always been an essential part of their research. Sinars oversees research that is often classified. “It’s vital that the people who can have access to classified data are talking, are sharing ideas, and are providing peer review. That is happening in a very vibrant way across the three labs.”
As the director of the Pulsed Power Sciences Center at Sandia, Sinars works closely with scientists from multiple laboratories. He describes a recent experiment during which Sandia’s theory and modeling scientists collaborated closely with their counterparts on experiments that were designed at Livermore and fielded by another group of Sandia scientists. In the same experiment, many of the diagnostics were created by Los Alamos scientists and adapted from work developed at Livermore.
“That was truly a tri-laboratory achievement,” Sinars says. “It’s really exhilarating because it brings us together, and we’re truly a team doing all this research together. The exchange of ideas is phenomenal.”
Three labs are better than one, according to Steve Girrens, the Sandia associate labs director for Nuclear Deterrence Stockpile Management, Components, and Production. “With three labs you have diversified talent. If you can have diversified science and engineering you can collaborate, which creates the best outcomes. We collaborate for the national interest,” he says.
Some of those joint projects have involved large-scale weapons modernization and life extension programs. From supercomputing, computational modeling, and simulations to hypersonics and satellite programs, collaboration is key.
“There’s always this sharing of resources,” Girrens says. “And with that comes the subject matter expertise that is resident at the individual facilities, which are always helping contribute to the overall success of the project. It builds a better outcome when you have multiple people contributing in their areas of specialty.”
Ullrich says the collaborative approach is essential for the overall success of the nuclear security enterprise. “Who does what? I’m not sure you can always draw the line. It’s kind of ziggety,” she says, tracing a jagged line in the air with her hand. “The National Nuclear Security Administration provides the broad overview and can see the perspective. Big programs actively work together.”
Girrens says that often the three labs’ work is similar or overlapping, which isn’t a coincidence. One example is gas transfer systems, which are used in nuclear weapons to increase the primary fission reaction. “Right now there’s a situation where both Los Alamos and Sandia make gas transfer systems, but Los Alamos makes gas transfer systems for Los Alamos weapons and Sandia does the gas transfer system for Livermore weapons.” These mirrored programs have a clear benefit, according to Girrens. “Now you’ve become peers of each other and are doing peer review. We’re not afraid to challenge each other. I think that there’s a lot of value in that,” he says.
An ever-expanding mission
Over the years, Sandia’s mission has continued to expand, and the labs' many contributions to national security are evident in the diverse nature of their projects and their ongoing evolution to meet military needs. The labs worked carefully with U.S. Strategic Air Command to develop devices, called Permissive Action Links, that stop the unauthorized use of U.S. nuclear weapons by preventing arming or launching a weapon without a code. Later Sandia would develop nonproliferation programs and reach out to help other countries develop technology to monitor nuclear activity. In the 1970s, Sandia’s mission expanded into developing new sources of energy—a focus that is ongoing. Other mission areas have included anti-terrorism programs, biological and chemical terror prevention technology, satellite detection and sensor systems, and integrated military systems supporting missile defense.
Another area in which Sandia is pushing the envelope is in technology-transfer partnerships. The labs collaborate with industry, small businesses, universities, government agencies, and other labs to bring new technologies to the marketplace and contribute to economic growth. “Sandia is committed to nurturing small and diverse business partnerships to achieve our national security mission and further economic prosperity,” says David Dietz, Sandia’s director of integrated supply chain management. “We could not deliver success without small business.” So far Sandia has provided technical assistance to companies in cybersecurity, energy, robotics, and medical industries, using these collaborations to bring new ideas and products into the marketplace.
A desire to solve problems
Ullrich notes that Sandia has grown from a single facility with an easy-to-define core mission to a sprawling institution with thousands of employees. Over the years, Sandia has expanded its capabilities and sought opportunities for spin-offs and diversification, always keeping national security at the forefront. A commitment to strategic thinking about the future and the nation’s needs is a hallmark of the labs, she says. “When Sandia takes on something new, the labs’ leaders are intentional and look for things they can build on.”
Cook stresses that even as the Sandia mission expands, the foundational focus remains on engineering and systems integration. “And the result: you put all the parts together for the car, you start it up, and it runs,” he says. ★