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DOE Weapons Labs At A Crossroad

Questions abound for nuclear scientists as new President charts path for U.S. weapons labs

by Jeff Johnson
January 12, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 2

Credit: DOE/NNSA
Emergency response exercises like the one shown here are part of a program that so far has trained 60,000 first responders at the DOE Nevada Test Site.
Credit: DOE/NNSA
Emergency response exercises like the one shown here are part of a program that so far has trained 60,000 first responders at the DOE Nevada Test Site.

WHEN PRESIDENT-ELECT Barack Obama takes office next week, scientists at the U.S. weapons complex, military officials, members of Congress, and arms control experts will watch anxiously to see what he will do about nuclear weapons. His presidency comes at a time when the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons complex is undergoing a difficult reexamination.

Decisionmakers are split over what exactly the future of the weapons complex should be, but they all see a tipping point ahead. They are gearing up for a major debate on nuclear weapons and what shape a modernized nuclear weapons science and manufacturing complex should take. Much is at stake, including the future of some 37,000 weapons staff, 15,000 of them employed at three national labs.

"I am worried," George H. Miller, director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), told several hundred participants at a symposium on the future of the complex, which was organized by the newsletter publisher ExchangeMonitor Publications and held last month in Washington, D.C. After painting a favorable picture of the 57-year history of the California lab and its contributions to U.S. science, Miller warned that his lab and the other two U.S. nuclear weapons labs—Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)—are being threatened.

"Over the last two years, Livermore and Los Alamos have lost 2,000 people each," he said. "These are people who could have been working on national problems." Sandia has fared better, but lab officials project a 1,000-person loss between 2006 and 2010 (C&EN, June 30, 2008, page 30).

The cuts are due to the nation's change in its nuclear weapons strategy: The government is reducing the size of both its nuclear weapons arsenal and the complex that once made and still maintains the weapons. And Congress has been unwilling to support the Bush Administration's call for a new generation of nuclear weapons.

Lab scientists feel the crunch and worry about the stability of funding for the labs. They also worry about the quality of science they will be able to do in the future, as well as personal and family issues—should they buy a house, put down roots, or look for a job elsewhere? In interviews, they say morale is terrible. "This is not just a job; it is a choice," a lab scientist with a decade of service at LANL tells C&EN. "If the DOE complex is a dying enterprise, we do have other alternatives and somewhere else to go to do interesting work."

The cutbacks, Miller noted, are going to continue, pointing to a long-term plan to cut the workforce at the nuclear weapons complex's three labs and five production facilities by 20 to 30% and to reduce the physical size by one-third over 20 years. Instead of a decline, Miller argues for a reinvestment in existing resources, taking the labs into a realm where their basic science research and development will be expanded to include "all things nuclear." His views were shared at the symposium by other lab directors and officials, including Thomas P. D'Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees the complex.

Others, particularly those involved in the arms control and peace movements, see the restructuring of the labs as an opportunity to save money and create a less threatening international climate concerning nuclear weapons.

THE LABS' FATE is likely to be determined by Obama. On the table for consideration will be whether the nation makes a new generation of nuclear weapons, how hard the weapons complex pushes to increase its nonweapons research, and the impact and implications those decisions have on international proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Obama has endorsed the elimination of nuclear weapons and supports a view voiced by an unusual mix of military hawks and former government officials including Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz. They seek elimination of nuclear weapons because of their inherent risk and declining deterrence value in light of today's nonstate terrorism threats (C&EN, March 19, 2007, page 34).

But Obama offers a caveat: "As long as nuclear weapons exist, we will retain a strong deterrent." What a "strong deterrent" might be can vary immensely and will have a huge impact on what lab scientists do. This year could be pivotal.

Pushing for a reexamination of U.S. nuclear policy is Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Armed Service Subcommittee on Strategic Forces and hails from the area that includes LLNL. She led an effort in Congress that blocked an NNSA and Bush Administration proposal to develop new nuclear weapons. But with a new Administration in place, her views may be changing.

In interviews and speeches, Tauscher explains her plans for this year, which she hopes will lay the groundwork for an overhaul of U.S. nuclear policy, tying the size of the complex and the number of weapons to national and international security and nuclear nonproliferation.

But she awaits a pair of reports before nailing down particulars in her plan. The first is due in April from a high-level commission she created that is charged with examining the nation's strategic policy, including the role of nuclear weapons. Tauscher will also look to a Nuclear Posture Review, a formal review of U.S. nuclear policies to be conducted by Obama's Department of Defense, which is due in December. She says the two studies will present a "historic opportunity to bring U.S. nuclear weapons policies into the new century."

The reviews are likely to result in a significant shift from the labs' past, which began in the early 1940s with the Manhattan Project. LANL scientists, working in hastily constructed buildings in the New Mexico hills and canyons, designed and assembled the world's first three nuclear bombs. One was tested in the New Mexico desert and the others were dropped on Japan, ending World War II.

Less than a decade later, the weapons complex expanded to include two new labs and several manufacturing facilities. The complex was a busy and scientifically exciting place to work, with steady and dependable employment, making weapons too horrible for anyone to use.

THIS ACTIVITY hit a wall in the early 1990s, however, when the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union came to a welcome finale. This event brought with it the end of nuclear weapons manufacturing and design. In 1992, the U.S. also agreed to stop explosive nuclear weapons testing, which it conducted mostly in the Nevada desert. The U.S., however, left the door open to future testing.

With no weapons to design or manufacture and no explosives testing allowed, the labs' attention then shifted to the "stockpile stewardship program"—maintenance and certification of the nation's 15,000 nuclear warheads with complex scientific, nonexplosive tests, including enormous computer simulations based on existing test data. The labs also began to increase their non-nuclear-weapons work, but that change has been slow.

NNSA's goal is to have half of the labs' R&D be non-weapons-based, with a growing amount of non-DOE and nongovernment partners. Lab officials estimate that currently about 30% of LLNL and LANL work is not specifically related to nuclear weapons. A small part of that, called "work for others," is outside DOE but remains within the federal government. A still smaller part—about 1%—is work done for industry. Nonweapons work is highest for Sandia, with about 60% of its science now non-weapons-based. About one-third of the nonweapons work is outside of DOE, but less than 2% is funded with private support from a mix of partners: Procter & Gamble, Goodyear Tire & Rubber, Intel and other computer-related companies, and a smattering of energy developers.

Along with expanding nonweapons research, NNSA plans to remove old facilities and change the complex to a nimble, modern, and smaller science and manufacturing complex. NNSA has called for a "21st-century infrastructure with 21st-century thinking," which includes greater reliance on long-term funding for security, nonproliferation, intelligence, energy, climate change, and other nonweapons scientific work. In interviews and statements, NNSA's D'Agostino promises to also "recruit a new generation of talented scientists and engineers."

"I am not thinking about next week," D'Agostino says. "I'm thinking this country is going to continue to need experts to develop the best nuclear detectors in the world, develop the best chemical detectors in the world, and develop the best biodetectors in the world. They will also need a place to test them," he notes, pointing to the Nevada Test Site.

Although he promotes nonweapons research, he also wants to make a new bomb. The weapon, D'Agostino says, would be safer to handle and more protected from capture. It would be a green bomb—environmentally benign, without the use of beryllium and other toxic materials. Although it would be a new weapon, the payload and delivery would be the same as the old ones, he underscores.

D'Agostino's position has a lot of support in the military and nuclear weapons community. Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, commander of U.S. Strategic Forces, has called for a return to U.S. weapons manufacturing in exchange for reductions in the U.S. nuclear stockpile and a continued freeze on testing.

Obama's choice for defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, has similar views. Speaking in late October at the nonprofit think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., Gates said, "To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program."

He noted, however, that Congress "has a deep-seated and quite justifiable aversion to nuclear weapons" and has refused to fund the "reliable replacement warhead" (RRW), the Bush Administration's proposed new weapon. He added that Congress will not ease the conditions under which weapons might be used nor will it allow the development of weapons with new capabilities.

Eventually, the continual life extension of the current stockpile without testing will be impossible, Gates said. A new weapon will allow NNSA to reduce the stockpile by "balancing the risk between a smaller number of warheads" with an industrial complex that could produce new weapons "if the need arises," he added.

Gates also promoted the new weapon as a solution to the problem of an aging workforce and the "brain drain" of weapons designers at the labs. Since the 1990s, NNSA has lost more than one-quarter of its workforce, he said, and half of the nuclear lab scientists are more than 50 years old. Those under 50 have little experience with nuclear weapons development. Three-quarters of the workforce will reach retirement age within a few years, he said.

Gates went on to say that the weapons now in the arsenal were designed under the assumption that development would continue and they would be replaced. He noted that the stockpile stewardship program allows modification to extend lifetimes but that with each adjustment the weapons move further from what they were when originally tested. The last U.S. test was in 1992, he stressed.

These views are a mantra in the defense and weapons community. John S. Forster Jr., an LLNL director in the 1950s, tells C&EN the labs have relied too long on "computer simulations, viewgraphs, and reports and speeches. They need to do real work and design new weapons whether they produce them or not."

MOST IN THE arms control community disagree and fear new weapons will renew an international arms race like the one during the Cold War. They also say a new weapon is unnecessary.

One of those critics is Richard L. Garwin, a physicist, former weapons designer, and member of JASON, an independent defense advisory group. In recent articles and correspondence with C&EN, he stresses that the current $5 billion annual stockpile stewardship program is adequate to maintain the weapons without testing. He notes that plutonium, the key element that was thought to degrade, has been found to be viable for at least 85 years. Furthermore, he urges that a cap of 1,000 warheads be placed on all nuclear weapons whether they are deployed, in transit, or being maintained. This is fewer than the current level of about 5,000 warheads and fewer than the Bush Administration's 2012 goal of 1,700 to 2,100 operationally deployed warheads.


"The Bush Administration RRW is dead," says Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the nonprofit Arms Control Association. He also endorses a reduction to 1,000 or fewer weapons. He too says the current maintenance program is working well and development of a new weapon is technically unnecessary, is not cost-effective, and will lead to a return to explosives testing and an international arms race.

Rep. Tauscher says that she has objected to the Administration's proposed warhead because nuclear weapons proliferation, when coupled with President George W. Bush's "preemptive war doctrine," makes a new weapon appear "dangerous and destabilizing."

But she now supports a new weapon if it follows a path leading to the elimination of all nuclear weapons. For Tauscher, that weapon must be safer and more secure than those in today's stockpile but identical in yield and function. She remains opposed to any testing and says that NNSA must instead rely on science to ensure the weapon works.

"No new launch platforms. No new testing. The definition of 'weapons' is not changed. What we are doing is making improvements on weapons that won't move us into where we are actually enhancing their capability," she says.

Using a car metaphor, Tauscher says her mechanic can enhance her car's safety, reliability, environmental impact, and security. "But after he's done, my car is still a car. It doesn't go faster, it doesn't fly, and it doesn't make coffee." In return, she says, she wouldn't have to maintain her other five cars that are on blocks in the garage. "I can get rid of them," she adds.

Although the debate about the future of DOE's nuclear weapons complex is unlikely to give immediate comfort to lab scientists, Tauscher is not concerned. She takes a long view and calls the labs "the jewels in the crown" of worldwide science innovation.

"I am not suggesting that the labs decline as we cut the number of weapons. Rather, the labs might actually have an increase in work with a growing national security role," Tauscher explains. "They have a history of attracting the best minds in the U.S., and they will continue to do so. While lab job security is not what it was 25 or 30 years ago, I think people at the labs probably should have the least concern because of their skill set," she says.

"The labs' missions have morphed and changed over the years and will continue to do so," she points out. "I think there is plenty of work for them to do."


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