Fewer Swords and More Plowshares at Livermore
America's three major weapons labs, where nuclear bombs and other awesome devices were developed, are turning more attention to producing a peace dividend
AT the national laboratory that invented the hydrogen bomb and countless nuclear weapons since then, Richard Landingham is thinking of golf clubs and motorcycle helmets. A scientist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory here, Mr. Landingham helped come up with a new material that is lightweight and among the hardest substances ever created. Half ceramic and half aluminum, it was devised as armor plating for the military. Several companies, though, think the material could also make dandy golf-club heads, motorcycle helmets, and bulletproof vests. The ceramic metal that has come out of his ovens is symbolic of a shift under way at the country's national weapons laboratories.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Founded in the era of the Manhattan Project and early cold war, the three major nuclear-weapons labs - Livermore here and Sandia and Los Alamos in New Mexico - have focused much of their attention on improving the nation's military might.
Now, in an period of declining East-West tensions and shifting national priorities, they are being pushed to expand the nonmilitary work they do in such areas as energy research and environmental problems.
Skeptics wonder if the labs, immersed in the culture of defense, can make the shift to a more-civilian role. But enthusiasts believe this huge reservoir of talent and technology could be instrumental in improving United States industrial competitiveness.
``I think for the next 10 years we are going to make a ... gradual transformation from where we are toward more applications in the civilian, nonmilitary sector,'' says John Nuckolls, director of Livermore.
Producing things other than missiles and death rays isn't new for the labs. They have long had substantial civilian programs. Almost from the day in 1952 when this sprawling complex east of San Francisco opened, it was a center for fusion research aimed in part at trying to create a clean, virtually limitless source of energy.
But the interest in nondefense work and the spinning-off of more technologies is increasing, partly as a matter of survival. Those who run the weapons labs know that if they are to maintain healthy levels of funding they will have to adapt to a new world in which the demand for nuclear warheads and other exotic weapons will probably drop.
The labs' budgets, collectively about $3 billion, rose in the 1980s with the Reagan military buildup. Seventy percent of the work at Livermore is defense-related. Director Nuckolls expects that figure to drop to around 50 percent in the next few years, close to where it was in the late 1970s.
Part of it is changing national needs. Even before the chummier superpower relationship there was a clamor in Washington to boost US economic and technological prowess. Some see the three major labs of the US Department of Energy (DOE) - indeed, all of the agency's 31 laboratories - playing more of a part.
Cherri Langenfeld, director of technology policy at the DOE, says she thinks it would be a mistake to assume the labs can turn around the economic health of the nation, but she thinks they can make a contribution.
Research on nuclear weapons will not be abandoned. Some defense-related areas - insuring the reliability and safety of nuclear weapons, verification of treaties - may increase. ``We have a major asset in the labs,'' says Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico. ``For us not to use them to address the needs of the country would be shortsighted.''
US Secretary of Energy James Watkins has formed a committee to reexamine the national laboratory system and indicated he would like to see an expansion of civilian work at Livermore, Sandia, and Los Alamos, and more technology spinoffs at all the labs. ``Unless the results of our research are productively used by US industry and the consumer, we are wasting the taxpayer's investment in that research,'' he said in July.
Forging broad links between the defense laboratories and industry won't be easy. The labs are accustomed to operating on federal largess and often in secrecy. Scientists involved in ``blue-sky'' research will have to be encouraged to think commercially.
``It will require a cultural change,'' says Angelo Codevilla, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution. ``Many of them are involved in big science, which is not oriented to the market. It is oriented to bureaucracy. It is a little like saying, `How do you reform the Soviet economy?' ''
Businesses, for their part, will have to be convinced there is something worthy to be mined from the institutions and that ideas and technology exchanged won't fall into competitors' hands.
``Some people don't even approach the labs, because they are convinced they aren't doing anything relevant,'' says DOE's Langenfeld. Yet she and others believe the climate is changing. A major catalyst was legislation passed late last year, which encouraged the weapons labs to share technology with industry and universities.
They are doing so with varying degrees of aggressiveness. Sandia has formed a consortium of companies that is looking for ways to use special metals developed for the cruise missile.
Officials at Los Alamos see commercial potential in such areas as computer software, sensors, toxic cleanup, and supercomputing.
Livermore, which may have the largest concentration of laser technology in the world, will see it put to work in civilian pursuits - enriching uranium for use in nuclear power plants and continuing the attempt to achieve fusion energy. Lasers are being looked at for cutting, welding, and waste treatment.
The lab has already spun off dozens of technologies and products. They include software to help companies look for oil, and laser technology about to be used in making computer chips.
In the future, administrators expect the lab to play a big role in bio-medicine, advanced materials, microelectronics, and study of the global climate, as well as energy.