Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Toward a Nuclear-Free World: The Weapons Laboratories

The four nuclear statesmen, George Schultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, have another January op-ed. This one is not as attention-getting as the past two and will probably get lost in the uproar over the Massachusetts Senate election.

The four say that we must track deterrence along with disarmament. The last Nuclear Posture Review revised the old “triad,” which was composed strictly of nuclear weaponry, to include the capability to provide nuclear weapons, more or less just-in-time, which includes the nuclear weapons laboratories, Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia. A manufacturing capability would include more; the Department of Energy has been trying to sell a new manufacturing complex for a decade or more, misreading the politics and overreaching every time.

The weapons laboratories have historically been the brains behind the hands that manufacture the weapons. They not only design the weapons, but they have worked out most of the scientific and engineering problems associated with manufacture. They decide on the specifications and tolerances.

As the numbers of nuclear weapons decrease, the ability to manufacture them may increase. Being able to maintain or reconstitute that ability will be an essential part of any nuclear weapons program that eschews first use and resolves that such weapons exist only to deter their use by others. Even when all nuclear weapons have been eliminated, such a program, perhaps vestigial, will continue. We know how to make them and can never give up that knowledge.

Knowing how to build nuclear weapons gives you the knowledge of what other nations might do if they are trying to build up a nuclear weapons capability of their own. The weapons labs work with the State Department, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and other countries to train people and provide their own expertise in figuring out what is going on in places like Iran and North Korea. They have developed and installed radiation monitors to detect the movement of dangerous materials out of Russian laboratories and at border crossings.

I came to Los Alamos in 1965, at the height of the Cold War nuclear weapons buildup. The Laboratory was smaller then, and more focused. Diversification from nuclear weapons was beginning, with design of the Rover reactors (nostalgia here, pdf) and the Ultra High Reactor Experiment, along with a tiny grant from the National Science Foundation for extracting energy from geothermal deposits that didn’t have water associated with them.

It’s been a downhill slide since then, with a few bright spots. The weapons groups have not suffered as much as other groups, but from what I hear from friends and associates at Los Alamos, it’s a very unhappy place. Livermore and Sandia are having their troubles too.

When I came to Los Alamos, it was understood that anyone there might be called upon to work on nuclear weapons. That has changed, and there are staff members who don’t realize that nuclear weapons are the primary product. Non-weapons researchers look down on the weapons people, and vice versa. The tradition of management’s acquiring large projects has collapsed in favor of a university principal-investigator model, while everyone has to fill out time sheets to the tenth of an hour.

There’s more, but the bottom line is that morale has been on a downward trajectory since 1965, still continuing.

So what the four nuclear statesmen are proposing is that the weapons laboratories be funded more generously to retain scientists and engineers who can maintain a capability for manufacturing nuclear weapons.

I would have made this op-ed stronger than the four did. More funding for the weapons laboratories is part of making them the motivated and competent institutions they once were. But massive culture changes are needed as well, along with much-improved management. That would likely require a change in the expectations of the larger culture, as well, a recognition that there are some things that are uniquely the province of the government, like developing and maintaining nuclear weapons.


MT said...

Are you nuts?! Fine, I'll go read the op-ed before I say more.

Anonymous said...

Cheryl, there seems to the assumption that more funding for the weapons laboratories will ensure competent stewardship over present and future nuclear weapons and it will excite young, talented scientists and engineers to pursue their careers at weapons laboratories. My husband is not on the nuclear weapons side at Los Alamos, but he is in a hot area of research globally. While there has been more funding for his area of research at Los Alamos, nearly all of the gains have gone to overhead taxes for bloated Bechtel management salaries and tons of other overhead. When I see data, such as in 2004 the United States graduated 70,000 engineers, while China graduated 500,000 and India 200,000, I don't see how the United States can attract young American technologists into fields of nuclear weapons manufacturing and management and compete with the domestic and global companies and laboratories making scientific and engineering breakthroughs in other fields of science and engineering. My prediction is in 20 to 30 years, the US nuclear weapons stewardship will be contracted out to a US company who can supply competent oversight from a plethora of Chinese and Indian scientists and engineers available for hire in every field. I see Russia incorporating this kind of foreign expertise even sooner. In my opinion, we can't move towards zero fast enough.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Anonymous - Look again at my last paragraph. You list a number of problems that I incorporated into that paragraph implicitly.

I couldn't agree more that increases in funding aren't enough to assure a competent and reliable work force at the weapons labs.

Russ Wellen said...

Four statesmen? Don't you mean The Four Horsemen? Kidding!

Very helpful post, especially this:
"As the numbers of nuclear weapons decrease, the ability to manufacture them may increase."

Thanks to for the capsule description of Los Alamos over the past 45 years. New to me.