Simulations help ensure nuclear safety, officials say

As the Bush administration grapples with news of nuclear weapons from North Korea, Energy Department scientists say complex software systems have shown the American stockpiles to be fully secure.

On a daily basis, three Energy Department facilities'Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national labs'run complicated simulations to study how the nuclear weapons would react under the stress of explosions, floods, fires or even accidental shootings.

The sometimes weeks-long simulations, which officials wouldn't describe because they're classified, are to ensure the weapons don't produce nuclear yield, endangering either lab employees in the near term, or the public in the long term.

'In every case, we have found the nuclear weapons stockpile to be very, very safe,' said William Reed, acting director of the Office of Advanced Simulating and Computing at the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration. 'We have found no circumstances that lead us to concern.'

Reed said lab scientists are constantly improving or modifying the modeling and simulation codes to address changes in the way the country's nuclear weapons are dismantled, transported or stored.

For example, Reed's office turned to computer simulations of crisis situations or natural disasters when underground testing of nuclear weapons in Nevada was stopped.

But not all procedures have asserted such positive results. Last week, the NNSA issued a Preliminary Notice of Violation to the University of California, which operates Los Alamos, for violating nuclear safety rules and procedures last September.

The notice pointed to poor handling of plutonium-contaminated piping, weak personnel controls during radiography operations, failure to safely operate experimental equipment and inadequate cleaning of laboratory systems as factors that could have, but didn't, expose workers to radiation.

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