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Government Science

The Political Assault On Los Alamos National Laboratory 215

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 tqk ( 413719 ) <> on Thursday November 10, 2011 @06:48AM (#38010554)

    Are atomic weapons still needed ? i think they aren'T.

    Perhaps we should ask Pakistan, China, and North Korea. And Iran. And India. Who else? Rogue Soviet sympathisers?

  • by MadKeithV ( 102058 ) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @06:59AM (#38010602)

    Are atomic weapons still needed ? i think they aren'T.

    Perhaps we should ask Pakistan, China, and North Korea. And Iran. And India. Who else? Rogue Soviet sympathisers?

    You could argue that maybe those nations wouldn't be so trigger-happy to get a nuke if they weren't constantly being threatened by the other guys who already have nukes. But yeah, genie, bottle, cat, bag, all that stuff. It would be nice if we could get a global agreement to settle all conflicts by a good Unreal Tournament Deathmatch, but it's not going to happen.

  • by bytesex ( 112972 ) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @06:59AM (#38010606) Homepage

    "Hoping Nanos would take the hint, employees planted âoefor saleâ signs on his lawn in the middle of the night. He once came out of church to find an obscene bumper sticker had been affixed to his car while he was praying. Things eventually got so bad that Nanos had a safe room installed in his home. In May 2005, faced with an unmanageable situation, Nanos abruptly resigned. âoeThe corks they are a-poppinâ(TM) tonight,â reacted one poster on the blog."

    The guy may not have been a pleasure to work with, but if this is not a sign of sloppiness and arrogance (and severe lack of human compassion and discipline), then I don't know what is.

  • by ledow ( 319597 ) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @07:18AM (#38010686) Homepage

    The US currently has enough warheads to destroy the world several hundred times over. It could easily be argued that this is a little excessive unless aliens invade that can survive 100 nuclear obliterations of the earth and still pose a threat to what's left of the US by then (hint: which would be ash and dust and a few scraps of metal).

    There may be a need to hold some weapons as deterrent - nobody really argues that once they have the capability - but do you *really* need the ability to kill everyone on the planet, yourself included, several hundred times over? Hell, even just knocking it down to "twice over" is more than enough security and needs a nuclear budget only 1/50th of what it is now.

    Even the UK has the power to obliterate the planet if it really came to it, and we only have something like 5% of the US arsenal still active.

    Plus, a single nuclear detonation as an act of war will pretty much end the planet. That's *why* the US/UK still have nuclear weapons - to say "Try it, even against only one country in a small way, and we'll just take everyone out." - which puts the fear of Armageddon into any idiot that things their Northern/Southern neighbours don't respect them enough. There's only been two quite small nuclear bombs dropped as an act of aggression in the entire history of the planet - both on Japan - which ended WW2 almost instantaneously. The next one pretty much *starts* and
    *ends* WW3.

    Nobody with a brain is saying "get rid of all nuclear weapons". They're saying "Why the hell do you need *THAT* many when just one might end the world and just 2% of your stockpile will guarantee the end of the world on its own?", especially when your taxes are PAYING for those things to be guarded in case someone rogue *does* steal them. The more of them that exist, the more chances of accidents, terrorism, thefts, rogue agents, etc. being successful. Scrap most of them safely and get on with life with the same assurance that you can eliminate all life that you had before.

  • Re:Frankly... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <> on Thursday November 10, 2011 @07:25AM (#38010726) Homepage Journal

    Those who have everything they want at a whim are more afraid of losing it than those who have to scrimp, save, recycle, reuse and fight for it. I don't know why, it's just the way I see it. Probably some primal thing which says "You can't take it with you - you leave this world as you entered it, cold and naked." Or maybe I've just accepted the inevitability of corporeal mortality.

    Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose...

  • by Sockatume ( 732728 ) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @07:35AM (#38010770)

    Being "a pleasure to work with" isn't a requisite for being a good administrator, it's true, but taking such an adversarial attitude to personnel that a mass staff revolt is launched is a sign that one is clearly not appropriate for the job.

  • by Virtucon ( 127420 ) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @07:37AM (#38010780)

    Given the nature of the work and it's importance to National Security (I won't argue that point) the work of the individuals at LANL should be supervised and standards maintained; no question about it. I do agree that congress and previous administrations have over-reacted to situations but then again, we're talking about the stewardship of the nuclear arsenal here. Also, when have we never seen congress over-react to an even perceived problem where national security is concerned. The people who work at LANL have to be creative in what they do because since the Test Ban treaties they're work focuses on more theoretical simulations than actually getting to set off a nuke, and creativity and discipline don't necessarily go hand in hand, that also has to be realized. Leslie Groves had the same problems when they were building LANL and the first atomic weapons and he constantly was frustrated with the scientists because of the cultural differences between the military and academia. Despite all of this and under the tightest security all it took was a few sympathetic individuals to let the secrets out that gave the Soviets a huge leap in their project.

    I think what has to happen with places like Livermore and LANL is that congress and the administration have to work to maintain the secrecy necessary to protect the stockpile but also let the people flourish within the confines of the work being done. Those individuals realize the importance of the work and do their best day in and day out to do that job well, so it's not wholly necessary to put clamps on them that create barriers to their well being and satisfaction with their work.

  • by identity0 ( 77976 ) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @07:40AM (#38010788) Journal

    One wonders if Richard Feynman could work there now if he were still alive, given his hobby of safecracking and lockpicking to leave prank notes. But hey, it's not like they were doing anything important, right? []

    Anyone know if there are any eccentrics left at the labs, or has it really been purged of 'weird people' like Feynman?

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

    by Tastecicles ( 1153671 ) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @07:50AM (#38010820)

    You're absolutely right!

    To borrow from Yoda: "Learn to free yourself of those things you are most afraid to lose."

    He was talking about exactly this. Material possessions are a crutch. You can't have exclusivity on ideas (no matter what patent laws are passed), which are infinitely more valuable to the whole of Humankind than a barrel of crude or a hole in the ground. If something helps you to live life more comfortably or is useful as a tool for doing something else, that's all it is - a tool. It's not worth dying for, or killing for, you can always get another. Or make another. To completely rely on something for what you consider survival (aside from bread and water), is to become a slave to it.

    Me? I'm a slave to my pocketknife. Easily the most useful and beloved of any item in my possession. Everything else is just gravy. But you know what? If I lose it, I can get another. It's still just a tool, if I lose it I can get another.

    I get the feeling this thread is turning into one of metaphysics...

  • by mug funky ( 910186 ) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @08:05AM (#38010882)

    Israel, UK, France.

    face it, this stone's been turned, and it can't be turned back. even if we abandon nuclear weapons today, the knowledge exists to make them again (as it should - to ignore all of nuclear physics would be a bad idea).

    in this game, anyone who can wipe out millions of people at the touch of a button is going to hold some sway. so these weapons are desirable, and always will be, even if the rest of the world is playing along.

    and not to sound far-right, but i think a nominal deterrent is needed as well. the USA's policy of consolidating, simplifying and idiot-proofing it's arsenal is not a bad one. not so much having the stockpile, but having the ability to churn out cheap, simple, reliable nukes at a moment's notice is useful, as well as a small number of "active" nukes just in case anyone gets any ideas.

    of course, if everyone had nukes, the world would be less safe. but they say that about handguns, too.

  • by ustolemyname ( 1301665 ) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @08:15AM (#38010936)

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

    [citation needed]. Seriously, I've never seen a quote as high as 10 for US and former Soviet Russia. Your "several hundred times over" number for the US alone smells like ass (which implies you pulled it from yours).

  • by Maury Markowitz ( 452832 ) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @08:29AM (#38011028) Homepage

    > face it, this stone's been turned, and it can't be turned back. even if we abandon nuclear weapons today,
    > the knowledge exists to make them again (as it should - to ignore all of nuclear physics would be a bad idea).

    The same is true for crossbows, but I don't see anyone rushing to equip armies with them. And before you say it's not the same thing, you need to go and examine the history of the crossbow, because it absolutely was the atomic bomb of its era. So basically I think this is a terrible argument.

    The Bomb is an outdated weapon. The same is true of MBT's, heavy SP artillery and many other weapon systems. We're already at the point where a weapon that can't be carried on a Twin Huey is a useless weapon - so the M777 and Hummer-based drones are much, much more valuable than the Crusader and Abrams. And as that evolution continues, I suspect the war of the future is going to look more like stuxnet and less like The Bulge, and that evolution will continue. It will continue to be bloody, ever more so, but the way that damage will be delivered with be with precision, not area effects. The Bomb is the ultimate area effect weapon.

    And that's assuming the war that the US next fights won't be on the balance sheet rather than in the skies. I believe all evidence suggests this is the real threat and that spending time and effort worrying about the atomic maginot line weakens the US's attempts to move into the future.

    > nominal deterrent is needed as well. the USA's policy of consolidating, simplifying and idiot-proofing it's arsenal

    It's not a bad idea, by any means. Cheap too.

    There is the question of how many weapons are needed, and also the conversation about demasting them. It seems entirely reasonable to me that 50 strategic warheads kept in secure off-site storage (as opposed to mounted in missiles) is just as much a deterrent as 10000 warheads ready for 10 minute launch. And not just today, in the 1960s as well.

    Removing them from the missile would be a clear message to the world that the US does not consider other people a threat to their existence (which is the case) as well as provide another level of escalation (or sabre rattling if you prefer) that doesn't exist now.

  • by MikeRT ( 947531 ) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @08:36AM (#38011070)

    While Lee was clearly a victim of racial profiling and media-enabled hysteria about Chinese espionage, this is not to say that he had done nothing wrong. He had, in fact, removed from the lab computer copies of top-secret nuclear weapons simulation codes, a serious offense for which he surely deserved to lose his clearance and his job. There is no evidence, however, that he ever gave the codes to a foreign country or that others at the lab had engaged in similar misdeeds. Indeed, many of Lee’s colleagues were horrified to hear of what he had done. When asked whether other scientists illicitly copied or took home secret documents, one Los Alamos weapons designer told me, “What Wen Ho did was like driving 80 miles per hour in a school zone.”

    Los Alamos National Laboratory is far more likely to actually be working with classified documents that if released or stolen would prove to be terribly harmful to the US than, say, what happened to the State Department recently. What Wen Ho did was not like "driving 80 miles per hour in a school zone," rather it was like driving 100mph through a residential neighborhood while dozens of kids were walking across the street as their bus was unloading. It's so reckless and irresponsible that "even if he didn't kill someone," it shows an unacceptable lack of concern for the safety of others and his community.

    I know many slashdotters like to chuckle about overclassification, but consider where he was working. Is it really wrong for the federal government to put its boot firmly up the ass of a scientist who works at one of our two nuclear weapons laboratories when he thinks basic procedures are beneath him?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 10, 2011 @08:55AM (#38011194)

    What happened to Wen Ho Lee was the DOE director Richardson, a cabinet level Hispanic, former UN ambassador, former congressman, was widely expected to the the vice presidential running mate. This happened on his watch and the republicans were determined to destroy him for something that was not even his fault (the infractions occured before his time in office). He in turn massively over reacted. The FBI went nuts. Wen Ho Lee was put in solitary confinement and only allowed to have one book at a time. I've no doubt Wen Ho deserved jail time, but even the judge who let him out said he had be abused by the process. But the over reaction continued to play out politically and the lab was the loser.

  • by drerwk ( 695572 ) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @10:56AM (#38012290) Homepage

    ...these labs don't exist for the pleasure of working there. And nerds clearly still don't have a clue of how they are perceived by the rest of society.

    In a real sense they do exist for the pleasure of working there; because the primary societal goals for which the labs were created can only be accomplished by people who are motivated by the pleasure of their work. The motivations of people like Oppenheimer, Feynman, Hasslacher, et al. are not generally money, they are motivated to understand nature, to work with similarly talented people, and to be recognized within that peer group for their work. Acknowledgment outside the peer group is largely unimportant, which means even if they spent the time to consider how they are perceived by the rest of society, they would not especially care. These are not easy people to manage towards goals other than their own, and it takes someone like Oppenheimer who was both in the peer group and an excellent manager to do so. It may also take an existential situation like was faced in WWII.

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

    by overlordofmu ( 1422163 ) <> on Thursday November 10, 2011 @11:10AM (#38012430)

    And you will suffer for your attempts to hold on to your friends and family.

    This is Buddhism 101.

    Life is transitory. Time ends everything and everyone. Everyone you love will die. It is inevitable. There is nothing you can do to stop it.

    Your emotional attachment to the transitory things of this world are the source of your suffering. The only way to escape suffering is to cease to have attachments.

  • by demachina ( 71715 ) on Thursday November 10, 2011 @11:21AM (#38012568)

    The US is actually on a trajectory for fossil fuel independence thanks largely to fracking, horizontal drilling and improved seismic analysis tools. The U.S. is already producing so much natural gas its becoming a net exporter.

    A Goldman Sachs estimate has the U.S. becoming the world's #1 producer by 2017. If the U.S. reduces consumption with things like improved fuel efficiency it could eventually break even, something Presidents have promised but failed to deliver since the 70's

    North Dakota's fields are putting out so much oil they are having pipeline capacity problems. Production from Texas and California's ancient oil fields is also booming. Drillers passed over rich, shallow deposits in Santa Barbara fields because it was hard to tap. With current technology its producing windfalls. California just sacked the commissioner that was blocking new drilling permits so its probably going to throw open the doors to new production.

All seems condemned in the long run to approximate a state akin to Gaussian noise. -- James Martin