Oct. 18, 1999 ITHACA, N.Y. -- As the U.S. Senate this week wrangled over the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the spotlight was on the nation's still impressive stockpile of nuclear weapons. The United States stopped testing nuclear weapons in 1992, and for much of the time since then it has used a highly advanced computer model to plan the dismantling of weapons under strategic arms reduction treaties (START) and to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
A Cornell University professor who helped create the computer model calls it "a principal tool for making sure the political commitments in these arms reduction negotiations are well informed and that we have a solid basis for understanding what we are committing to."
Mark Turnquist, Cornell professor of civil and environment engineering, has been among the prime developers of the computer planning model for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Today the model is at the heart of managing the "dramatically increased rate of weapons disposal as a result of START treaties, and at the same time supporting the continuing stewardship of the remaining stockpile," he said.
Recently Turnquist spoke about the delicate subject of dismantling nuclear weapons and managing the environmental consequences of their disposal as part of the Water Resources and Environmental Engineering Seminar Series at Cornell.
Turnquist became involved in the problems of weapons disposal as the result of models he created first for estimating traffic flows in New York City and then, for Sandia National Laboratories, on routing and scheduling trucks moving hazardous materials. He was then asked to apply these ideas to scheduling problems at Pantex, the Amarillo, Texas, plant operated by the DOE for dismantling nuclear weapons and maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
Six years ago, Sandia assembled the team from Cornell, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Pantex that began developing the nuclear weapons model, called the Pantex Process Model (PPM). This model, said Turnquist, has become "central to the DOE's ability to allocate resources in an effective way." This includes transportation of weapons, the replacement of components in stockpiled weapons, the storage of plutonium from dismantled warheads and the incineration of conventional explosives.
The PPM, consisting of modules controlling disposal, evaluation and long-term planning, has become the basic tool by which the hugely complex business of safeguarding the world's most dangerous stockpile and disposal operation is carried out. It operates, Turnquist explained, in highly graphical form, as a Windows-based application, with hierarchically organized menus. Operators move as freely as in the Microsoft Explorer Internet program.
Levels of disposals on a month-by-month basis for particular weapons systems are displayed. An evaluation module shows which specific jobs are being conducted and the sequence of tasks being performed, those taking only four hours as well as those taking several weeks. Long-term planning follows weapons systems for as long as 30 years.
"Since we are no longer building new weapons, the ones that have been sitting there for a long time are going to continue sitting there. They have design lives and there are limited-life components that have to be replaced over a period of time," Turnquist said.
In addition, the PPM links to several Pantex data bases, including those that track radiation exposures, nuclear material inventory, maintenance, transportation, and certification and training of Pantex's 2,850 workers.
One of the major impacts of the model, Turnquist said, is that it is being used to predict needs for facilities to support long-term treaty commitments. Its output also is used both by Pantex and by DOE officials "to convince Congress to augment DOE's budget for facility expansion."
Related World Wide Web sites -- Mark Turnquist: http://www.engr.cornell.edu/college/Faculty.html
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