ALBUQUERQUE — On the outskirts of New Mexico’s largest city, a team of engineers at Sandia National Laboratories is engaged in a long-running treasure hunt to make sure the oldest weapon in America’s nuclear arsenal, the B61 bomb, remains safe for deployment.
They cannibalize spare B61s for parts, such as the vacuum tubes needed to keep the radars working on active bombs. If they don’t have spares, they track down outdated machines to manufacture the components themselves, as they did when they bought a machine to produce integrated circuits.
But after the manufacturer of the circuits went bankrupt and its machines were no longer available, the Sandia engineers had to become even more innovative.
“We bought three or four on eBay,” Gilbert Herrera, who manages Sandia’s microsystems research and facilities, said as he stood on the work floor recently. “For $100,000 apiece.”
The B61 was once heralded as a cornerstone of the country’s air-delivered nuclear force. Developed as a major deterrent against Soviet aggression in Europe, it is a slender gray cylinder that weighs 700 pounds and is 11 feet long and 13 inches in diameter. It can be delivered by a variety of aircraft, including NATO planes, anywhere in the world.