Ending Brain Drain at US Bomb Labs

New program allows best and brightest to do cutting-edge science, but it also draws critics.

Set in a shallow California valley amid hills coated with golden grass, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for decades attracted the nation's most elite scientists to labor in pastoral secrecy over the most terrible weapons the world has ever known - thermonuclear bombs.

But a couple of years ago, when budding physicist Kim Budil ended her post-graduate research at the lab, Lawrence Livermore was not on her list of prospective employers. With federal budget cuts and the end of the cold war, up-and-coming scientists no longer saw Livermore and its two sister nuclear-weapons labs as places to find a secure future.

"There was talk about there not being three national labs," says Ms. Budil, whose primary interest is laser research. "Even the future of the laser experiments was in question."

But the past two years have seen a dramatic turnabout, sparking what some say is a scientific renaissance at the national laboratories. The labs have a new mission: to maintain the safety and reliability of America's nuclear arsenal now that nuclear testing is prohibited, and to design and produce new weapons.

Stewardship to the rescue

The Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program not only renews the scientific challenge, but also is backed by projected spending of $4 billion a year for at least the next 10 years. Staff cuts have ended, and the labs are again recruiting brilliant young scientists.

Among them are Budil, now a staff physicist working on the centerpiece of the stewardship program - the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a multibillion-dollar, football-stadium-size laser complex. Energy Secretary Federico Pea presided at the groundbreaking for the complex last Thursday.

"The chances of doing cutting-edge science are immense with that facility," says Budil. "This is the first time I feel I have an exciting future in front of me." Young scientists at Livermore, and at the Los Alamos and Sandia labs in New Mexico, share that feeling. "We're a much happier crowd," she says.

In the nation's capital, the recruitment of fresh, top-rated scientific talent is seen as a matter of national security. The US nuclear arsenal is composed of aging, and possibly deteriorating, weapons - and the scientists who designed those weapons are already retiring.

"It is a community that is showing signs of aging and attrition," says physicist Sidney Drell, who chairs the University of California commission that oversees the three nuclear-weapons labs.

The brain drain at the national labs caused "a crisis of confidence," confides Kent Johnson, a 25-year veteran of and now chief of staff of Lawrence Livermore's nuclear-weapons division. It was propelled not only by funding cuts, but also by the loss of a sense of purpose that came with the end of nuclear-weapons production and the moratorium on nuclear testing in late 1992.

"The challenge is to sustain a community of first-class weapons designers," says Dr. Drell. In the event of a change in global politics or in technology, "we may need them."

Architects of the stewardship program say its scientific challenges are more daunting than those of the weapons-development program that preceded it.

"The scale of the problem, in terms of maintaining these weapons indefinitely, is more difficult than designing a new weapon," says Victor Reis, assistant secretary for defense programs at the Department of Energy, which oversees the nation's nuclear arsenal.

The task may be complicated by the fact that the national labs increasingly are staffed by scientists who have little or no experience actually testing a nuclear weapon.

The centerpiece of the program, the NIF, is intended to reproduce thermonuclear ignition under controlled conditions. It will allow scientists to study how to keep weapons usable under conditions never faced before. It is one of five planned experimental facilities in the national labs that scientists plan to use to simulate the effect of a nuclear blast.

The facilities will also be used to conduct a wide range of basic research. The NIF will explore the possibility of producing safe and essentially unlimited amounts of energy from a controlled fusion process.

Welfare for bombmakers?

But the NIF program has a host of critics who argue it is unlikely to achieve thermonuclear ignition, it is too expensive, and it is unnecessary. They say the stewardship program is nothing more than a welfare program for bombmakers and their laboratories.

"Every bureaucracy resists cutbacks, and the laboratories' price for not opposing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty seems to have been a major stockpile stewardship program," says Jeremy Stone, president of the American Federation of Scientists and a frequent critic of nuclear policy.

Mr. Stone and other nuclear-policy experts, such as physicist Han Bethe, also worry that new types of weapons could be developed by the labs under the aegis of the program. Laboratory officials, as well as the DOE's Dr. Reis, vigorously deny any intention to design new weapons.

But they do not conceal their desire to keep intact the dark science that created the terrible weapons of the nuclear era.

Indeed, tucked into the Stockpile and Stewardship Management Program is a small office devoted to recording the secret wisdom of bomb designers, says Dr. Johnson.

These are men like Seymour Sack, who until his retirement a few years ago was the primary scientist responsible for eight different nuclear-bomb designs and a participant in some 90 nuclear tests. The lab recently invited Dr. Sack back to help create a 15-hour video that must be the most highly classified piece of oral history in existence.

Inside a vault sealed by a massive steel door, with a combination lock known only to a handful of people, the bomb designer recounted the history of his decisions as he gestured to full-scale, detailed models of every nuclear weapon designed here.

"If we see that on CNN, we're in big trouble," says Johnson, with a small grin.

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