The Economist July 7, 2005
Under new management
America's atomic-bomb laboratories are about to be overhauled. It promises to be a tricky business
JUST over 60 years ago, Robert Oppenheimer demonstrated the power of a partnership between the American government and academia. His team of university scientists developed and built the first nuclear bombs in a jumble of buildings at Los Alamos in the New Mexican desert. The team achieved its astonishing success in just over two years.
The University of California has run Los Alamos National Laboratory since that inception in 1943. But an embarrassing series of security and safety lapses at the laboratory, which recently resulted in the temporary suspension of all classified work for several months, has led the government to insist that the university find an industrial partner when it rebids for the contract to manage the place on July 19th. The contract is open to competition, and a rival bid is expected from another university with a commercial partner.
Los Alamos is one of three national laboratories working on nuclear weapons. For more than half a century, the University of California has run two of them—Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, which specialise in nuclear science—on behalf of the American government. The third—Sandia National Laboratories, which is responsible for the non-nuclear components and systems engineering for America's nuclear weapons—is managed by Lockheed Martin, an engineering firm. The contracts for managing all three will now be put out to tender.
Work at the labs has shifted considerably since the testing of nuclear weapons was suspended in 1992. Instead of weapons development, America's nuclear-weapons scientists have been engaged in “stockpile stewardship”, a programme designed to ensure that the country's warheads will continue to function predictably as they age. This work involves computer simulations of how a weapon would explode, and “subcritical” tests that do not involve full nuclear detonations.
The labs have two large physics experiments under way. The first, at Los Alamos, is an oversized X-ray machine that uses non-fissile material to examine what happens when a pit—the fissile core of a nuclear weapon—implodes. In a weapon, this implosion triggers the nuclear explosion; in the lab, the explosion is thankfully absent. The second experiment is the National Ignition Facility (NIF), which is intended to generate temperatures and pressures approaching those created by the pits, in order to detonate small pellets of nuclear explosive.
Politics is currently threatening the NIF, which is being built at Lawrence Livermore, in California. It was supposed to be completed, at a cost of $1.4 billion, in 2003. To date, $2.8 billion has been spent on it—a figure somewhat complicated by the mingling of construction and running costs—and the facility is still an estimated four years from completion.
On July 1st, the Senate voted to stop construction completely, action that was part of a $31 billion energy and water appropriations bill. Pete Domenici, a Republican Senator from New Mexico who heads the relevant subcommittee, made the proposal. His state includes both Los Alamos and Sandia (though Sandia also has a site in California).
Although the decision appears to threaten the facility, it could be just a piece of political manoeuvring. John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based defence consultancy, wonders whether Mr Domenici might be positioning himself for a meeting later this summer, when he must get together with members of the appropriations committee of the House of Representatives, whose chairman is from California and therefore unlikely to agree to the cuts. Nevertheless, Mr Pike says, there are still questions to be asked about the role of the ignition facility.
Most researchers agree that the NIF is scientifically important for the study of nuclear fusion; more controversial is whether it is necessary for stockpile stewardship. Sidney Drell, a physicist and arms-control specialist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre, in California, says the project is “integral” to stockpile stewardship. Mr Pike, however, describes it as a “self licking ice-cream cone—a thing that exists for its own sake and serves no purpose”. Some physicists agree, though not on the record.
Three recent internal reviews of the facility by the Department of Defence and the Department of Energy go so far as to suggest that without it America would move closer to resuming nuclear testing. The longer the country relies solely on computer simulations to check for faults, rather than on the micro-explosions the NIF would make possible, the less certain the Department of Defence is that the warheads will perform as expected.
But stockpile stewardship has other functions. It retains a coherent body of nuclear expertise in America and (which is slightly different) it prevents nuclear scientists from being lured overseas. Unfortunately, the uncertainty about the future has lowered staff morale, potentially damaging this secondary function of keeping weapons scientists in America. At Los Alamos, the appointment of an irascible former admiral as the lab's director did not help, although he has since been replaced. An unofficial blog that allows disgruntled staff to publish anonymously lists gripe after gripe. Older staff—some 39% are aged 50 and above—have been retiring at unprecedented rates, afraid that their generous pension packages will be cut if the University of California fails to win the contract. At Lawrence Livermore, some 300 researchers were made redundant last year after Congress slashed the NIF's construction budget.
Yet there is hope for a brighter future. A fundamental rethink of the way in which America maintains its nuclear weapons is on the cards. Congress recently authorised a two-year study to determine whether a new approach to maintaining warheads would be possible. The so-called reliable replacement warhead programme aims to work out whether it is possible to make cheaper weapons without nuclear testing, by modifying existing components. The programme could present opportunities for demoralised nuclear scientists.
Historically, the University of California has managed the labs on a not-for-profit basis. To encourage competition for the management contract, officials at the Department of Energy plan to increase the management fee, to allow an element of profit. Indeed, a University of California internal memo reads, “Extrapolating from a recently negotiated DOE contract with Lockheed Martin to manage Sandia, we imagine we could double the $15m fee.” Higher fees should secure better management and improved working conditions for staff.
After much soul searching as to whether the university should be conducting nuclear work at all, its senior management has decided to go ahead with a bid in partnership with Bechtel, an engineering and construction firm based in San Francisco. The University of Texas has announced it will also bid for the contract, in partnership with Lockheed Martin.
Whichever succeeds—the result will be announced by December 1st—it is probably a smart idea to keep the nuclear-science labs managed at least in part by academics. Historically, university management has proved better for long-term research projects than corporate governance. The research culture at universities is open and flexible. This attracts talented scientists and stops them wandering to places where their talents might be put to uses of which the American government might disapprove.
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