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Government & Policy

January 12, 2009
Volume 87, Number 2
Web Exclusive


A Search For New Science Opportunities

Jeff Johnson

Some 5,600 Ph.D. scientists work in the Department of Energy's three main weapons labs, says Victor H. Reis, a senior adviser in the Office of the Energy Secretary. The total for the three is almost half that of the other 14 DOE labs combined, he adds. Reis and other nuclear weapons experts don't want to see this talent lost as the direction of DOE's nuclear weapons complex evolves. In fact, Reis and others recommend that these scientists be put to work solving problems in climate change, national security, and energy???specifically nuclear energy.

Reis, 72, has worked in basic science, defense, and energy within the federal government for nearly 50 years. He is the former DOE assistant secretary for defense programs and oversaw development of the nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship program. He has the distinction of being hired and fired by several energy secretaries.

A few years back, Reis watched the labs develop a design for a new warhead, and he'd like to see lab scientists do the same thing for nuclear power. The labs set up a sort of competition to develop the so-called reliable replacement warhead in which each of the two physics labs, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), developed their own design and critiqued each others' work. They were aided by Sandia National Laboratories, the third weapons lab, which is more engineering-oriented. Eventually, a design by LLNL and Sandia won, but in the end, it mattered little because Congress refused to fund the weapon.

But the process excited Reis.

"They used modern design tools, including high-performance computing, and they pushed the science to the limit," Reis says. And because basic nuclear research is the forte of the weapons labs, he says, "I thought then that they should do the same thing with nuclear energy."

Reis is a big supporter of programs to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and to develop an international system to reprocess spent fuel into new fuel. That fuel would be provided to the rest of the world to encourage the growth of nuclear power. Reprocessing has been stymied, particularly by Congress, over concerns regarding proliferation of plutonium, as well as cost and technological problems. However, Reis says the labs can overcome such problems because of their knowledge and experience with nuclear technology and weapons-grade material, as well as their ties to other countries with nuclear capabilities.

The ideas proposed by Reis mesh with the current National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA's) management push to expand the weapons labs to become "stewards of all things nuclear," in the words of Thomas O. Hunter and George H. Miller, directors of Sandia and LLNL, respectively. NNSA is a semiautonomous part of DOE that runs the weapons complex.

Hunter and Miller point to a growing emphasis in the labs on security, intelligence, advanced computing, energy research, and detection of nuclear and radioactive materials. Miller wants the labs to become the crime scene investigators—like on the TV show "CSI"—for nuclear materials and weapons and be able to respond anywhere in the world to a "nuclear event."

Lab scientists, Miller says, have a special advantage when it comes to searching out countries or individuals that are developing nuclear weapons. "It takes a nuclear weapons designer to know where to find another nuclear weapons designer," he says.

Similarly, Raymond Jeanloz, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, and chairman of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on International Security & Arms Control, notes, "Even if we got rid of our nuclear arsenal, we would want experts to be thinking about what others might be doing and what they could do if they had a billion dollars and were sitting in a cave with an Internet connection."

The labs, Jeanloz says, have been criticized for high overhead costs, but the attributes that led to high costs—work in a highly classified environment, the cost of long-term basic research, and handling nuclear materials—are benefits for some types of research the labs could further expand into. He gives the example of testing and improving airport security systems.

Jeanloz sees many opportunities for the labs, particularly through new R&D in areas that have been overlooked, such as technological support for law enforcement and first responders to emergencies.

First responder training has become a growth industry for the Nevada Test Site, says Stephen M. Younger, a former weapons designer and president of the contract management firm Nuclear Security Technologies, which runs the site.

More than half of the facility's work is directed toward reducing the threat of weapons of mass destruction rather than toward doing nuclear weapons work, he says, and almost all of the facility's R&D portfolio consists of non-nuclear-weapons work.

When explosive nuclear weapons testing came to an end, Younger says, the test site got a chance to reinvent itself with new science applications. He offers the example of technology development to find improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which, he says, has been used with great success in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The current discussion over the future of the weapons complex is "like coming into a theater in the middle of a movie," Younger says. He urges a reexamination from the beginning. "We have an opportunity to propose a whole new future for our community," Younger adds, referring to the community of scientists and engineers working in the DOE nuclear weapons complex. "We can propose this future or it will be imposed on us by the new Administration. We need to recognize that the emphasis of this new Administration is likely to be on nonproliferation and arms control—not necessarily to the exclusion of weapons, but proliferation and arms control will be the emphasis."

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society

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