Weapons Labs Are Struggling to Find Their Role in the ‘90s : Nuclear facilities face uncertainty and shrinking budgets

When a visitor enters the forbidden offices and laboratories of the scientists who design nuclear weapons at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the secretaries go through a time-honored secrecy ritual. They trot out knee-high sandwich boards and place them like wet-floor signs, warning denizens not to discuss classified information while the outsider is there.

But there is much less to keep secret these days at Livermore and other national laboratories. The end of the Cold War and the extended moratorium on nuclear testing have brought something of a recession to the atomic-bomb business--and deep uncertainty over the future of the national labs that have played such a crucial role in America’s defense.

The weapons labs are going through a difficult transition. They are trying to comply with a presidential mandate to maintain the capability to design nuclear weapons, but they cannot test the weapons. They are also trying to transfer their technology and skills into commercial applications. Their budgets are shrinking and their staffs, already slashed by early retirements, still face possible layoffs. Livermore alone has lost about 800 weapons scientists and engineers--a figure equal to half the entire tenure-track faculty of UCLA. Congress is casting a beady eye. “The labs are going to have to come up with good justification for continued existence,” said a spokesman for Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

California has a keen interest in all this. The University of California, under contract to the Department of Energy, manages three of the laboratories: Livermore, 45 miles east of Oakland; Los Alamos in New Mexico, and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, which no longer does classified work. Livermore and Los Alamos have long been fierce rivals in nuclear weapons work, but now economic forces may compel them to consolidate the work in one lab or the other (probably in New Mexico because such work is politically more acceptable there) or at least to reduce redundancies. And the government may demand that the UC system assume liability for any environmental contamination, a demand resisted by the university.


In February, Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary appointed a panel headed by Robert Galvin, former CEO of Motorola, to examine the future of the labs and ask whether their skills can be turned to enhancing U.S. industrial competitiveness. UC recently forced out Livermore’s director, John H. Nuckolls, amid suggestions of lax management. The interim director is C. Bruce Tarter, the first director not directly involved in weapons work. Also, the government has canceled Complex 21, a new weapons production program in which both Livermore and Los Alamos were to have had major roles.

The irony is that the labs that built the American nuclear deterrent have only one obvious role for now: reducing and securing the nuclear stockpile they built and preventing the international proliferation of such weapons. But optimists see a higher role for the labs--as a crucial bridge between academic basic research and commercialization, promoting a “sustainable economy.” They foresee research on fusion energy and lasers with both military and civilian uses. Livermore, for example, promotes itself as site of a proposed $800-million National Ignition Facility, centered on a huge laser meant both to simulate thermonuclear weapon ignition and aid research seeking an inexhaustible supply of civilian fusion energy. And Tarter talks of using his lab to find “affordable effective technical solutions” to the “overriding national priority” of environmental cleanup. All this puts the labs into the highly contentious arena of governmental national industrial policy, and private firms already have complained of what they see as improper competition.

Numerous scientists at the labs are moving into such areas as environmental cleanup, global climate research, biotechnology and health care. Livermore has entered cooperative research with IBM, Boeing, Citibank and other companies. But others at the laboratories wonder whether they can function well without a single, focused mission. This is a central question that the federal government must confront before it loses a scientific capability that has served the nation well.