Weapons Projects May Move
By John Fleck and Ian Hoffman
Albuquerque Journal Staff Writers
Friday, August 20, 1999
The Department of Energy wants to shift key pieces of its nuclear weapons workload from Los Alamos National Laboratory to bolster a sister lab in California.
The proposal moves some work from Los Alamos to Nevada, shifts a large amount of plutonium and weapons maintenance now done at Los Alamos to Lawrence Livermore in California, and calls for a big new research complex at Sandia National Laboratories outside Albuquerque.
The moves, collectively called the "Mega Strategy," are aimed at balancing the workload at the department's major research and testing sites to ensure the right mix of skills is available in the future to maintain the nuclear stockpile, said Energy Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Gil Weigand, who is in charge of weapons research and development. The Livermore moves are aimed at giving scientists there handson responsibility for nuclear weapons, rather than simply weaponsrelated basic research, Weigand said in an interview Thursday.
"You need a challenging workload where they are really touching the bomb," he said. Weigand says the move is necessary to bolster the number of experienced U.S. weapons workers. Nucleardisarmament advocates see the changes as a worrisome retrenchment of U.S. nuclearweapons work. The proposal seeks a dramatic increase in explosive testing with plutonium and plutoniumlike metals.
"It's clearly a huge expansion of stockpile stewardship and beyond any scenario of what might be needed to keep the arsenal in a safe condition," said Jackie Cabasso, executive director of the Western States Legal Foundation in Oakland, Calif.
"For Los Alamos, this will mean more explosive tests with plutonium and more secret work at the plutonium facility," said Jay Coghlan, program director for Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, a watchdog group in Santa Fe. The critics also say other nations will read this spreading around of weapons work as the latest sign that the United States wants to keep its weapons indefinitely, rather than moving toward a smaller arsenal.
"For other countries, expanding activities at the Nevada Test Site is really offensive. It really flies in the face of what a test ban is all about," said John Burroughs, executive director of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy in New York.
With no change from the current path, Lawrence Livermore's dwindling handson work on nuclear devices jeopardizes its role in the nuclear weapons complex, said Bob Peurifoy, a retired Sandia National Laboratories nuclear weapons designer.
"If you go down that road, you're going to close Lawrence Livermore as a device lab," said Peurifoy, who frequently works as an adviser to the Energy Department and who has been briefed on the proposed changes. "They've got to have something to put their hands on."
Details of the proposal have leaked out of the department in pieces over the last month. But Weigand's interview Thursday marks the first public acknowledgement by the department of the details and scope of the plan.
Weigand said the plan, being developed as part of the Department of Energy's Fiscal Year 2001 budget proposal, would ensure the labs are able to do needed refurbishment and modification of U.S. nuclear warheads after the turn of the century.
Few if any people would be moved when the work is moved, Weigand said. The Nevada Test Site would be the new home of Atlas, a $48.3 million machine under assembly at Los Alamos that would smash soda cansized targets with massive jolts of electricity, yielding enormous pressures and temperatures needed to study how nuclear weapons work.
Weigand said moving Atlas to Nevada would free up Los Alamos to focus on hydrodynamic radiography, a crucial technique used by nuclear weapons designers. Scientists fire Xrays into exploding shells of high explosive and plutoniumlike metals. That lets scientists check and refine the operation of "primaries," the initial Abomb triggers for thermonuclear weapons. Weigand wants a more aggressive schedule of the tests at Los Alamos. Part of the tests involve a topsecret project, codenamed Appaloosa.
They employ an exotic metal, plutonium242, that can be imploded in bomb shapes without undergoing an explosive nuclear chain reaction. This gives scientists Xray movies of fullscale weapons tests that never go "nuclear." Moving plutonium work to Livermore will give Los Alamos more space at its plutonium facility for the Appaloosa work.
At the same time, Los Alamos would build one of the world's 10 most powerful proton accelerators to test out a new kind of hydrodynamic radiography. Scientists want more and higher quality pictures at more angles of exploding triggers. For a future machine, the Advanced Hydrotest Facility, they think the answer might be to surround triggers in multiple proton beams and Xrays, all delivering splitsecond pictures. Weapons designers can use these pictures as they do today, to verify the accuracy of weapons codes that simulate an exploding nuclear weapon. But critics inside and outside of the weapons labs wonder about the prudence and the cost of transferring work away from those most experienced at it.
“Moving Los Alamos work to Nevada doesn't make any sense from cost or technical standpoint," said Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, a disarmament organization in Santa Fe. "It's creating a new lab in the desert." Weigand would not say how much the moves would cost, but said the amount was "not significant." And he argues that weapons designers at Los Alamos are being stretched thin by their responsibility for maintaining weapons. Department of Energy policy calls for the lab that designed a weapon system to be responsible for regularly taking a few out of the stockpile and tearing them apart, looking for signs of deterioration.
Los Alamos is responsible for five nuclear warhead types, while Livermore is responsible for three.
Weigand said the workload was "exhausting" the Los Alamos weapons designers. As a result, he's proposing shifting responsibility for one of the weapons, the W80 cruise missile warhead, to Livermore.
Sandia National Laboratories benefits from the proposal. No major programs are leaving the Albuquerque lab, which is responsible for the electronic systems and other nonnuclear components in nuclear weapons. But Sandia will get a $300 million complex of buildings to centralize research into computer circuits and microscopic machines.