In 1998, the Department of Energy approved the construction of the ATLAS facility: the world’s most powerful pulsed-power compression system. ATLAS simulates the implosion of plutonium in nuclear warheads, and will be used in place of underground nuclear testing. During testing, all capacitors will be charged to 30 million amps at 60kv, then simultaneously discharged. This will fling intense bursts of electrical currents at a small target in the center, imploding small samples of plutonium. The material will be compressed to extreme pressures similar to those inside an exploding nuclear warhead. Data on the resulting blast wave, and its effects on materials placed in the target, will be used to calibrate computer models that determine if older weapons can still explode. ATLAS is expected to operate for 20 years.
Michael S. Rich Contractors, Inc. teamed with Martinez & Turek of Rialto, CA to furnish and install the support structure for the target chamber, twelve tri-plate tanks within the support structure, twelve maintenance unit tanks, and the steel catwalk that surrounds the ATLAS Project.
When looking down on the tri-plate tanks, they are shaped like an “A.” Viewed from the side, the tanks slope up to the center pressure vessel. The original design and the prototype had the three tank plates bolted together every two inches with neoprene boot, requiring hundreds of bolts. Once the tanks were assembled, the equipment was placed inside, and finally the tanks were filled with mineral oil for cooling (similar to large transformers).
At the start of the project, we proposed the tri-plate tanks be fabricated in one piece. This eliminated the need to machine four connecting flanges, the labor to connect the tanks, and, most importantly, the risk of mineral oil leaking from the tanks. The leak risk greatly concerned us, because the sloping bottom of the tri-plate tanks could create unequal loads, stressing the connections.
The ATLAS Project team accepted our proposal to fabricate the tri-plate tank in one piece. Fabrication proved more complex than we first thought, because the tanks warped during welding. Setting the tri-plate tanks in one piece also was much harder than we envisioned. At the end of the project, we wondered whether the extra effort was worth it.
A year later, the Albuquerque Journal ran an article about a mineral oil leak from the prototype tank. Several thousand gallons of mineral oil leaked from the tank, damaging more than $1 million of equipment in the basement. The joint that leaked on the prototype tank was the same joint we recommended be eliminated, and then was eliminated. Had the leak occurred on the final ATLAS Project, the leak could have been six times worse, since there were six tanks in the final design.
In mathematics, “elegance” is defined as finding the simplest formula for an equation. As in math, so it is in construction. Simple, elegant solutions require creative thinking, and often, more work. But they pay dividends in the long run.