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  • Science and AWE
Jun 2007
ALDERMASTON, England, June 25, 2007 -- Journalists attending a briefing on AWE's science program today saw how the site's work underpins the stewardship of the UK's nuclear weapons stockpile.

The briefing at AWE headquarters in Aldermaston, England, also included a tour of the site where Orion, one of the world's most powerful laser research facilities, is rapidly taking shape, said Brian Bowsher, AWE director of research and applied science.

Bowsher said, "Our science program is in good shape to deliver against our mission, which requires us to support and verify the safety and effectiveness of the Trident warhead stockpile throughout its operational life. New facilities such as Orion are the result of an investment program designed to ensure that AWE maintains the capability we need to support the UK's Trident warhead stockpile."

On completion, Orion will replace AWE's existing HELEN laser, which at 27 years old is approaching the end of its operational life. The high-power neodymium glass laser facility has capabilities that are enabling it to perform experiments in which matter is heated to extreme temperatures, bridging the gap to the new generation of laser facilities under construction in the UK and elsewhere in the world.

Orion's unique technical design, harnessing a combination of long-pulse and petawatt beams, allows tiny targets -- typically a millimeter in diameter -- to be subjected to pressures and densities normally seen only at the center of stars.

Expected to be operational by late 2010, the Orion facility will give UK scientists access to extreme states of matter which do not ordinarily occur on Earth.

The new laser is just one of the facilities underpinning the science program that helps underwrite the UK's nuclear deterrent. Since the UK is a signatory to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, AWE must be able to verify the safety and effectiveness of the warheads it produces and maintains using scientific means alone.

AWE plc manages and operates the Atomic Weapons Establishment on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, manufacturing and maintaining the warheads for the UK's nuclear deterrent.

The four core elements of AWE's science program are:
  • Plasma or laser physics, in which high-powered lasers are used to replicate in the laboratory, the physical conditions at the heart of a nuclear detonation (albeit on a minute scale)
  • Hydrodynamics, the science of forces acting on, or exerted by, fluids. It is important because, during a nuclear detonation, solid materials behave like fluids as they are subjected to extremes of pressure and shock.
  • Materials science, the study of the behavior of materials. A nuclear warhead contains a variety of special materials such as metals, inorganic salts, rubbers, foams, adhesives, high explosives and radioactive materials -- all in close proximity.
  • Supercomputing, which provides AWE with the ability to meet the three-dimensional modelling and simulation requirements of its physics, engineering and materials teams. AWE recently commissioned its latest supercomputer, known as Redwood, which is so powerful that to match it would require all six billion inhabitants of earth performing seven thousand calculations a second.
AWE's director of infrastructure, Jonathan Brown, said, "While we need to ensure that we have the right facilities to support our mission, it is essential that we maintain the confidence and support of our neighbours. AWE is working very closely with the local community as the company takes forward the development of its sites. To do this, we work directly with the local authorities and through our local liaison committee and keep people in the picture through the media and by producing public information leaflets."

With Orion already under construction, planning is underway for Gemini, a new office complex that will accommodate up to 1400 AWE staff and which is due to be completed and occupied over the next 18 months.

"With further site development,  AWE takes its responsibility for minimizing the impact of its activities very seriously," it said. A long-term travel and transport strategy has been developed and discussed with local authorities.

Improvements to site access are planned, with "new roundabouts at key points to improve traffic flow," and AWE operates shuttle bus services on and between its sites to minimize the use of cars. A car-sharing program launched in 2006 has already significantly reduced the number of cars being used for journeys to work, it said.

"Protecting the environment is a key element of AWE's future development strategy," said the company, which added that it has produced a comprehensive energy strategy and is working with a national utility company to minimize water leakage.

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