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Government Science

The Political Assault On Los Alamos National Laboratory 215

Posted by samzenpus
from the toe-the-line dept.
Harperdog writes "Hugh Gusterson has a great article on the troubles at Los Alamos over the last decade. Since the late 1990s, nuclear weapons scientists at the US Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory have faced an unanticipated threat to their work, from politicians and administrators whose reforms and management policies—enacted in the name of national security and efficiency—have substantially undermined the lab's ability to function as an institution and to superintend the nuclear stockpile."
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The Political Assault On Los Alamos National Laboratory

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 10, 2011 @07:51AM (#38010832)

    The article is spot-on. I was there for Act 1 and Act 2, and left when Act 3 was imminent. Those few left at LANL who I know have confirmed the accuracy of the paper about Act 3.

  • by icebrain (944107) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @08:22AM (#38010984)

    The US currently has enough warheads to destroy the world several hundred times over.

    Quit with the massively overblown hyperbole. If what you were saying was true, and about 2000 warheads was enough to "destroy the world several hundred times over", the would would have been dead and gone a long time ago. Hiroshima would have taken out China and Siberia, too, and Trinity would have wiped out the US. Obviously, that didn't happen.

    Nuclear weapons aren't magic "drop one and you wipe out and sterilize everything within a thousand miles" bombs. Yes, they're powerful--more so than people realize, in some ways--but in other ways, they aren't nearly as powerful as common "wisdom" would suggest.

    Honestly, 2000 warheads is barely enough for a credible deterrent at all. Yes, the goal of a deterrent is to convince the other guy that you can bomb him back to the middle ages if he does something you don't like, but that takes a lot more than sprinkling five or six devices across the country and calling it done. A credible deterrent plan targets not population, but industrialization, transportation, and military facilities; you want to take out everything that makes it possible for him to fight a war or live in anything close to modern comfort. That takes a lot more than a handful of devices. Something like a railyard or airfield is probably going to take a few successful hits to truly render it unusable.

    And then, of course, you can't just sit with the number you came up with there. Next, you have to consider redundancy; a good number of your warheads will fail to initiate, get shot down, or have a delivery failure (the rocket blows up, bomber aborts or is shot down, submarine doesn't get the message or is sunk, etc). And after that, you have to plan for maintenance; a very rough estimate is that a third of your stockpile will be out of service at any given time for maintenance (subs have to go into port for refits; bombers, missiles, and warheads themselves need maintenance and overhauls, etc.).

    Remember, the goal isn't to try to be scary. Rather, the goal is to have enough to convince the other guy that he absolutely cannot win under any circumstance, so he shouldn't even think about it. We had that in the past. We might still have it. But we might not. And as long as politicians keep making cuts not based on what makes strategic sense, or with a coherent goal and policy in mind, but rather just trying to score political points by cutting back to some arbitrary number they pulled out of their ass, we make the risk of that happening greater.

  • by SirGarlon (845873) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @08:39AM (#38011094)

    The US currently has enough warheads to destroy the world several hundred times over.

    About 20 seconds of effort yields the following: The total number of warheads of all levels of readiness stands at 9,962 warheads [nuclearweaponarchive.org] (with another 589 in "inactive stockpile" waiting to be dismantled). That is plenty to lay waste to any major country but hardly enough to destroy the world's military forces, let alone the world itself.

    The 2% of the stockpile you recommend would be about 200 warheads, which might be enough to deter Iran, but not (in my opinion) China -- and certainly not both at once.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 10, 2011 @09:09AM (#38011282)

    On December 10, 1999, Lee was arrested. Described as an extreme danger to US national security, he was held in solitary confinement for 278 days awaiting his day in court. When he was finally brought to trial, the case against him rapidly fell apart; 58 of the 59 counts against him were dropped, and he was released with time served for one count of mishandling classified information.

    The case did not "fall apart" when it went to trial, because it never went to trial. I'm also struggling to comprehend how the case could have "fallen apart", because they found classified information in his house and his unclassified computer, and what other evidence do you need for charges of mishandling classified information? (note: the case did "fall apart", in that he should have been charged with much more but wasn't, but the 59 charges were legit)

    Here's how espionage cases against people with clearances are always handled : you are charged with whatever crime you are guilty of, then are offered a plea deal for a lesser offense in exchange for two things. First, you must honestly relate everything you leaked, so the damage to national security can be assessed, and then you must promise a newly discovered silence about matters classified. For obvious reasons the vast majority (I can't think of any who haven't in recent history) of the accused take the plea deal and never go to court.

    Except for Wen Ho Lee. He refused to plea down to a lesser charge (in this case a single charge), as most of these people do. So they stuck him in solitary, because without agreeing to #2 he was still a threat to national security. Finally, after 278 days he relented and accepted the plea deal. He got off lucky, because the FBI botched the investigation and he could have been prosecuted for a good bit more -- export violations for one, for discussing nuclear information with Chinese scientists.

    The arrogance charge is right on the money. The relaxed attitude toward the law from people at the lab is astounding. The mere fact that Wen Ho Lee has become something of a martyr is proof.

  • Re:Frankly... (Score:4, Informative)

    by marcosdumay (620877) <marcosdumay@gmSTRAWail.com minus berry> on Thursday November 10, 2011 @10:00AM (#38011690) Homepage Journal

    Yet, from what I remember from the movie, Yoda was talking about family and loved ones, not material possessions.

    Excuse me, but I refuse to learn to free myself from them. All you saying you have nothing to lose aren't looking very hard.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 10, 2011 @11:17AM (#38012520)

    To give people an idea of just how sensitive this type of data is, this is basically what is already known publicly about making a lightweight fusion-boosted warhead that can be put on a rocket:

    The ideal fissile material is Plutonium-239. It should contain less than 10% Pu-240 and ideally less than 2% Pu-240
    This can be made in research reactors, using technology available in public literature.
    The amount used in a simple implosion bomb is 4-6kg
    It can be extracted from spent nuclear fuel by a solvent extraction process using the PUREX process ( which is again described in open litterature )
    A 2-point explosion system can be made by using an air-gap lens. Detailed analysis of how such a lens could be shaped is available in open litterature.
    Boosting the device is best done with an equal mixture of pressurized Deuterium and Tritium. About 5 grams total is needed.
    Deuterium is readily available on the open market, and Tritium can be produced from lithium in a research reactor.
    The plutonium can be stabilized in its delta phase by addition of about 3% gallium.
    To prevent oxidation the plutonium can be gold plated.

    Now, however:
    Optimal yield is achieved when the deuterium-tritium reaction burns close to completion while the fissile material is still in a dense configuration. This means the fission chain reaction ought to start early enough to heat the hydrogen isotopes to ignition temperature quickly, but not too early as that may result in inefficient compression. The exact timing of the initiating neutron pulse is therefore very important, and depends on the precise characteristics of the bomb. Determining the optimal timing is believed very difficult without nuclear testing.

    If the information he copied detailed the dimensions, composition and timing of the fission primary, then such information leaking to the public would essentially allow anybody that acquired weapons grade plutonium and tritium to create a highly compact nuclear warhead, small enough to fit on a rocket or easily hidden in a small space. The very first device to make use of this technology had a weight of about 40 pounds, and a yield similar to that of the Hiroshima bomb.

  • by DougDot (966387) <dougr@parrot-farm.net> on Thursday November 10, 2011 @12:27PM (#38013394) Homepage

    Speaking as the author/creator/owner/maintainer of the original LANL, The Real Story blog, http://parrot-farm.net/lanl-the-real-story/ [parrot-farm.net] [parrot-farm.net], and as a person who spent 20 years on staff at LANL, I can tell you that Hugh Gusterson's paper, if anything, understates the levels of incompetence, arrogance, and these days under its new corporate ownership, the *greed* demonstrated by the management of Los Alamos National Laboratory. The place had become nearly completely dysfunctional during the Nanos period, and is now simply treading water. The primary goal and business plan these days is to ensure that the annual award fee is received in it's entirety. Science has taken a back seat to making money for the LLC that now owns the contract for running the place.

    --Doug Roberts LANL, Retired 2005

  • Re:Hack Job (Score:4, Informative)

    by DougDot (966387) <dougr@parrot-farm.net> on Thursday November 10, 2011 @12:28PM (#38013404) Homepage

    Speaking as the author/creator/owner/maintainer of the original LANL, The Real Story blog, http://parrot-farm.net/lanl-the-real-story/ [parrot-farm.net] [parrot-farm.net], and as a person who spent 20 years on staff at LANL, I can tell you that Hugh Gusterson's paper, if anything, understates the levels of incompetence, arrogance, and these days under its new corporate ownership, the *greed* demonstrated by the management of Los Alamos National Laboratory. The place had become nearly completely dysfunctional during the Nanos period, and is now simply treading water. The primary goal and business plan these days is to ensure that the annual award fee is received in it's entirety. Science has taken a back seat to making money for the LLC that now owns the contract for running the place.

    --Doug Roberts LANL, Retired 2005

How many NASA managers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? "That's a known problem... don't worry about it."

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