Because of the nature of the United States defense industry, the development, building, testing, storage, and deployment of nuclear weapons is spread widely throughout the lower 48 states. This is done for a variety of political, economic, practical, and security reasons, but it means that the US Department of energy and the Department of Defense need to rely on specially made transporters that protect weapons and weapon materials from hijacking and accidents.
Apparently the first of the transporters was the back seat of an ordinary Army sedan, which was used to carry the nuclear materials for the first atomic bomb in 1945. Since then, a family of increasingly sophisticated vehicles has been developed, including aircraft, armored trains, and since the 1990s, the Safeguards Transporter tractor-trailer system.
To replace Safeguard, SNL is working for the National Nuclear Security Administration on the Mobile Guardian Transporter, which is expected to remain in service into the 2050s. For this project, engineers rejected developing an existing design in favor of a blank-sheet approach, which has culminated in the first crash test by the laboratory in two decades.
In previous tests 20 years ago, the transporter crashed into an immobile barrier. This time, the sensor-equipped prototype remained stationary while another truck was fired at it to produce a more realistic accident simulation and determine if the new transporter can keep the weapons cargo safe. The first prototype took 13 months to build with an additional six months to install the electronics before it was put to standard environmental tests that subjected it to extreme temperatures of hot and cold, as well as road driving and vibration tests.
For the crash test, the transporter’s sensors handled over 400 channels of data and video, including high-speed video. Such extensive sensor coverage was necessary because only three prototypes will be built before production begins.
“The transportation mission is a critical component of an effective nuclear deterrent,” says Jim Redmond, Sandia senior manager over the program. “It provides needed assurance to the American public and our allies of the safety and security of our stockpile. You’ve got to be able to ship nuclear assets safely and securely or you don’t have a deterrence program.”
Source: Sandia National Laboratories