Respond to this Article March 2006

Labs Behaving Badly

By Zachary Roth

In the long and storied history of bureaucratic infighting, few contests have been more vitriolic than the one between our two major nuclear weapons design labs, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore.

The antagonism has its roots in the relationship between the two fathers of the atomic program, Edward Teller and Robert Oppenheimer. In the late 1940s, Teller began advocating the immediate development of a hydrogen bomb, in response to the news that Russia had built an atomic weapon. Oppenheimer remained more cautious, and Teller soon became convinced that Los Alamos, whose director, Norris Bradbury, was an Oppenheimer ally, was insufficiently dedicated to the H-bomb project. With the help of Ernest Lawrence, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and California scientific entrepreneur, Teller persuaded Congress to create a second design lab in Livermore, Calif., which would go full-speed ahead on the H-bomb project. From the start, scientists at Los Alamos felt undermined by and resentful of Teller and his new facility, which they saw as radical and potentially dangerous. Livermore scientists, for their part, saw their counterparts at Los Alamos as stodgy and risk-averse.

When the H-bomb was eventually produced, Livermore was given most of the credit. This infuriated scientists at Los Alamos, who had in fact run the thermonuclear tests that had helped pave the way for the bomb.

The ultimate truth, say historians, is that the rancor was probably worth it: Thanks to competition between the two labs, America more quickly produced the H-bomb, and therefore had a more effective deterrent against the Soviet Union sooner.

The bureaucratic competition is not always productive, however. At the end of the Cold War, Livermore scientists reviewed the Los Alamos design for the W88 warhead. They concluded, wrongly as it turned out, that the design was unsafe, and advised against building it, a judgment that was received at Los Alamos as a slap in the face. But having separate design labs, and a relationship of competition -- even antagonism -- between them, does make it easier for outsiders to gain access to information about their shortcomings. "If I want to hear what's wrong with the NIF at Livermore, my best option is to go to people at Los Alamos," says Hugh Gusterson, an MIT anthropologist who studies the culture of the weapons labs. "And if I want to hear what's wrong with the DAHRT at Los Alamos, I'll go to people at Livermore."

If elected officials ever get around to consolidating our weapons complex, they'll have to decide whether to also consolidate the design labs. (The production facilities largely work on separate aspects of the process, so there's no real competition taking place.) The Overskei report neither recommended nor discouraged consolidating the two labs into one. But some members of the task force privately support such a step -- which would almost certainly mean shuttering Livermore, the smaller of the two. Doing so would not only provide the cost and security improvements associated with consolidation of special nuclear material. It would also, in all likelihood, make it easier to reduce the number of weapons scientists employed by the complex -- and therefore the amount of federal money for "make-work" designed solely to keep those scientists busy. The question will be whether these advantages will outweigh the benefits of competition.

Zachary Roth is an editor of The Washington Monthly.

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