Note: This story was last updated at 9:45 a.m. Jan. 22.
Canned subassembly certified four months ahead of schedule
The Y-12 National Security Complex on Monday said it has completed a major milestone in efforts to refurbish components for a strategic nuclear weapons system that is vital to the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
The first production unit for a bomb called the B61-12 was certified at Y-12 on December 6, 2018.
The work is part of the B61 Life Extension Program, or LEP. The B61 is a nuclear bomb that can be carried on several types of military aircraft. The B61 LEP will extend the life of this strategic weapon for 20 years, said Consolidated Nuclear Security LLC, which manages and operates Y-12 for the National Nuclear Security Administration.
B61 bombs are the oldest nuclear weapons in the nation’s active stockpile. They have been in service almost 50 years, and critical components of the bombs are reaching the end of their operational lives. The B61 was first “fielded” in 1968, and current modifications were fielded between 1979 and 1991, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Y-12’s role in the life extension program involves the manufacture of the canned subassembly or secondary—the second stage of modern thermonuclear weapons and part of the nuclear explosives package. Sealed in an airtight metal container, the canned subassembly is shipped from Y-12 to the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, for final assembly.
“This milestone is critical to the modernization of the nuclear gravity weapon stockpile and ensures the safety, security, and reliability of our national deterrent,” said Geoff Beausoleil, manager of the NNSA Production Office. Y-12 is an NNSA site.
In a press release on Monday, CNS Vice President and Site Manager Bill Tindal praised the teamwork that led to the early production of the unit.
“It took all parts of the factory working together to achieve this milestone ahead of schedule,” Tindal said. “By doing so, Y-12 has worked to ensure the success of this vitally important program.”
Oak Ridge Today reported in October that Y-12 had been approved to produce the canned subassembly. At that time, manufacturing and delivery were scheduled for March 2019.
The next milestone for the program is shipment of eight nuclear pilot production units to the Pantex Plant by March 2019. The recently certified unit is one of those eight, CNS said in the press release. The first complete B61-12 weapon is on schedule for production by March 2020.
The B61-12 LEP is one of four modernization programs under way for the National Nuclear Security Administration as the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile continues to shrink and gets older. That’s the busiest the NNSA has been since the Cold War era, Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty said in a report to Congress in October.
The B61-12 Life Extension Program will consolidate four versions of the bomb (3, 4, 7, and 10) into one. The bombs could be carried on B-2A bomber aircraft and F-15Es, several types of F-16s, and PA-200 fighters, and in the future, F-35s and B-21s.
The bombs will be about 12 feet long and weigh roughly 825 pounds. They are designed to be air-delivered in either ballistic gravity or guided drop modes, according to the NNSA. The bombs are deployed from U.S. Air Force and North Atlantic Treaty Organization bases.
The NNSA has said the B61-12 LEP will refurbish, reuse, or replace all of the bomb’s nuclear and non‐nuclear components. The bomb’s safety, effectiveness, and security will be improved, the NNSA said.
“The design maximizes component reuse whenever possible and omits higher-risk technologies while reducing costs and schedule risks,” said the NNSA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy. “This life extension program will address all age-related issues of the bomb and enhance its reliability, field maintenance, safety, and use control.”
A Boeing Tail Kit Assembly supplied by the U.S. Air Force will be added to the upgrades.
“When fielded, the B61-12 will balance greater accuracy provided by the modern tail-kit with a substantial reduction in yield, with no overall change in military requirements or characteristics,” the NNSA said.
The GAO has said the B61-12 life extension program has an expected completion date of fiscal year 2025.
Y-12 doesn’t expect to increase employment as a direct result of the B61-12 work. Ramping up to work on a weapon system can take months or years, said Steven Wyatt, public affairs manager for the NNSA Production Office in Oak Ridge, and Y-12 has successfully made preparations for the B61-12 work.
On Monday, CNS said Y-12 began work on the B61-12 Life Extension Program in 2013 and transitioned to production in the summer of 2016. Work on the program will last several years, the contractor said.
Besides Y-12 and Pantex, other NNSA sites and laboratories involved in the B61-12 Life Extension Program are Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Kansas City National Security Campus in Missouri; Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico; and Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina, according to the GAO report.
Four variations of the B61 remain in the stockpile: the 3, 4, 7, and 11.
Besides the B61-12, Y-12 has been involved in the life extension program for the W76-1 warhead, and the plant has been approved to build parts for a system being replaced in the W88 warhead. The NNSA has another another life extension program, the W80-4 LEP, that is intended to provide a warhead for a future long-range “standoff missile” that will replace the Air Force’s current air-launched cruise missile. It’s not clear yet what role Y-12, which manufactures uranium components and stores highly enriched uranium, among other activities, will play in that project.
More information about the B61-12 LEP is available here: https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2018/12/f58/B61-12%20LEP%20factsheet.pdf.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
See previous story here.
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