Stopping the killing tools

By Barbara Simpson

The whole country concentrates on a sniper’s rifle, but bigger and better weapons are on Washington’s front burner! Without headlines, things have changed and it’s making scientists happy because the last 10 years have been strained.

Picture this: Nobel-caliber physicists developing a new can opener, or The Manhattan Project working on car safety-belts, or top scientists developing consumer products.

Think I’m kidding? Well, a little – but it’s not far from the truth.

After the first President George Bush signed a law ending nuclear-weapon testing, our national laboratories had new assignments. Prior to that, their primary job had been weapons development and testing, with the goal of keeping this country safe.

There are three labs: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in northern California and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico are operated by the University of California. Lockheed Martin Corporation operates Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.

They’re a treasure-house for the top scientific minds in the country, if not the world – talent and skills that should be protected. They were, but times changed and, so the thinking went, so should the labs.

The rationale was that the cold war was over, the world was safe and we didn’t need weapons anymore – especially the dreaded nukes. There were efforts to eliminate the labs entirely along with their huge budgets.

But there was the pesky issue of existing weapons. Some had been dismantled, but those remaining were old – some dating back 20 years. There was, and is, concern they might not function properly when needed, or may present safety hazards during storage.

This battle of ideas during the Clinton administration ultimately resulted in a plan with two aspects. The first dealt with the weapons; the second with money.

The weapons assignment is called Stockpile Stewardship. Essentially, it means monitoring existing weapons systems and making certain they’re safe.

You know, like being certain they don’t just blow up all by themselves. Oh, and also be sure that if we ever want them to detonate, they will and will do it properly.

Oh, and one more thing. Do all of that without any actual testing. In other words, all the checking to determine that all systems are “go” has to be done in the labs and by computer models. No real-life testing. That’s a no-no. Of course, that had never been done before!

Initially the labs hated the idea. No surprise there. But since the alternative seemed to be phasing out the labs almost entirely, they faced facts. They had a job to do and needed some new tools – one of which necessitated a way to “look” into a nuclear explosion to see exactly how it works. This led to numerous new technologies, not the least is the construction of the world’s most powerful laser system at Livermore.

It’s called the National Ignition Facility, a football field-sized structure which, when completed, will have 192 laser beams. NIF will allow scientists to actually see detonation and its effect on bomb materials to determine any deterioration. It was described to me as like looking into the sun. It’s also a way of doing the testing in the lab. The cost: a massive $4 billion dollars.

At Los Alamos, they’re making new plutonium pits, the heart of the hydrogen bomb. These will replace older versions. The labs have also developed various other technologies to help guard the nuclear arsenal.

The second aspect of the Clinton assignment dealt with money. Essentially, the labs were to involve themselves in partnerships with the private sector to develop new techniques and technologies. The goal was that these projects would generate money, enabling the labs to pay for themselves. They were involved in everything from breast cancer and other medically related research to automotive safety, earthquake research and other product research and development.

But now Clinton is gone, another Bush is president and we’re at war with terrorism. So much for a peaceful world and money-raising business partnerships. We need those scientific minds to focus on national security.

Congress is pouring money into lab budgets and the challenge is to develop the means to protect us – everything from new weapons to relieve enemies of their weapons, to technologies to keep the military safer, to vaccine research, to detection devices for biological or chemical attacks. Indications are that nuclear testing might be resumed.

The cold war may be over, but the mind of man has developed new killing tools. Our national labs are on the frontlines to prevent that from happening. It’s about damn time.