ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sandia National Laboratories this week plans to
conduct the first tests at the lab’s new Gamma Irradiation Facility,
officially welcoming the GIF into the lab’s family of experimental nuclear

The facility can be used for space technology development, military systems
vulnerability testing, nuclear reactor component development, and many
other applications.

Objects as large as tanks or satellites and as small as microchips can be
tested at the GIF for their abilities to withstand the damaging radiation
environments they might experience in space, near stored nuclear materials,
or during a wartime nuclear exchange.

“We are pleased to bring the new GIF on line to support our national
security mission and our military, space, and nuclear energy customers,”
says Sandia Nuclear Facilities Manager Ted Schmidt. “This facility has
capabilities that will help satisfy many of the nation’s experimental
gamma radiation needs for decades.”

The facility includes two 10 x 10-ft. test cells, one cavernous 18 x 30-ft.
chamber that can accommodate large test objects such as weapon assemblies,
military vehicles, or space equipment, and an 18-ft.-deep pool of water
where underwater experiments can be conducted.

Pins made of radioactive cobalt-60 make up the gamma source arrays that
are used to subject test objects, such as electronic components, to

Stockpile reliability

Subjecting nuclear weapons components and other electronic systems to a
range of radiation types is an essential element of Sandia’s experimental
capabilities and the lab’s support of DOE’s science-based stockpile
stewardship mission.

When a nuclear weapon sits idle in the stockpile, its fissile materials
give off a continual, low-level buzz of radiation, primarily gamma. Over
time, this exposure can damage the weapon’s electronic components.

The hostile radiation environment a weapon or satellite experiences in
space also can damage electronics. And in a nuclear exchange, a weapon’s
detonation produces a burst of radiation that could destroy nearby
electronic systems.

The ability to simulate neutron, X-ray, and gamma radiation effects in
an experimental setting allows weapons and military systems designers to
anticipate component failure or develop new systems that can withstand
these radiation exposures. It also allows analysts to validate computer
models that simulate radiation effects so that full-scale nuclear testing
is not necessary.

Safety and security

More than 2,600 cubic yards — about 430 truckloads — of concrete was
used in constructing the GIF’s chambers and pools. Its test cells feature
6-ft.-thick concrete walls, four-pane leaded-glass windows, and serpentine
entryways that together virtually eliminate worker radiation exposures
during experiments.

The cobalt source arrays move along underwater tracks beneath the test
cells and are automatically raised into and lowered out of the chambers
to deliver the desired dose of gamma radiation to test objects placed in
the cells.

A test can last seconds to months depending on the customer’s gamma needs.
Gamma dose rates as low as tens of rads per hour to as high as 300,000
rads per hour can be delivered. (A rad is a unit for measuring absorbed
doses of ionizing radiation by a material.)

The GIF has gone through a rigorous and comprehensive safety review
process prescribed for all DOE nuclear facilities, says Norm Schwers,
Manager of Sandia’s Hot Cell and Gamma Facilities department.

It has been designated a Category 3 nuclear facility, meaning the threat
to the general public is minimal. It is inside Sandia’s Area 5, a highly
secure, remote test area on Kirtland Air Force Base south of Albuquerque,

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a
Lockheed Martin Company, for the United States Department of Energy under
contract DE-AC04-94AL85000. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M.,
and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major research and development
responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental
technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Other resources:

* Sandia’s radiation effects test capabilities

* Gamma Irradiation Facility details

* Local news article about GIF

* DOE stockpile stewardship program overview (pdf file)

* General radiation backgrounder

* Other Sandia news releases relating to radiation effects testing &


[Image 1]

CELL INSIDE — Don Berry (left) and Norm Schwers of Sandia National
Laboratories review procedures inside the largest of GIF’s three test
cells, spacious enough to irradiate large objects such as tanks and
satellites. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

[Image 2]

BIG DOOR — Don Berry of Sandia National Laboratories operates the “door”
to GIF’s large test chamber, a 480,000-lb block of solid concrete that
rides on air bearings.

[Image 3]

FRONT ELEVATION of the Sandia building that houses GIF’s test chambers.