Nuclear Weapons Labs Repurposed by Climate Scientists

By Chelsea Whyte on July 15, 2012 11:28 PM EDT

nuclear test
The supercomputers and laboratories set up for nuclear testing are now being used to model climate change. (Photo: Creative Commons: The Official)

Climate scientists are taking up residence in key Cold War research laboratories used decades ago to model nuclear bomb blasts and track radioactivity.

The repurposed labs came in handy in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization tracked the radioactive plume emanating from damaged Japanese nuclear reactors using a global network of monitoring stations designed to measure airborne radionuclides. That network is a direct descendant of systems and computer models created to trace the fallout from weapons tests, University of Michigan historian Paul Edwards said an article for Bulletin.  

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"Today, the laboratories built to create the most fearsome arsenal in history are doing what they can to prevent another catastrophe - this one caused not by behemoth governments at war, but by billions of ordinary people living ordinary lives within an energy economy that we must now reinvent," Edwards said.

Ways of tracking radiation as it moves through the atmosphere have applications that extend far beyond the nuclear industry, reports The Huffington Post UK. Tracing radioactive carbon as it cycles through the atmosphere, the oceans, and the biosphere has been crucial to understanding climate change.

And the similarities in the tools needed by nuclear and climate scientists doesn't end there. Environmental scientists mathematical models with roots in nuclear science.

The earliest global climate models relied on numerical methods, very similar to those developed by nuclear weapons designers, for solving the fluid dynamics equations needed to analyze shock waves produced in nuclear explosions, according to Product Design & Development.

In the wake of the nuclear age, the supercomputers housed in facilities built during the Cold war, including U.S. National Laboratories, have been infused with new life and are now used to model future climate change threats. 

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