Nonproliferation flourishes at Los Alamos lab

At Los Alamos National Lab, scientists are working on ways to keep the world safe from weapons of mass destruction. Photos: Keeping the peace

LOS ALAMOS, N.M.--This town is synonymous with one thing: the atomic bomb.

It's probably not fair, given that the Manhattan Project wrapped up its work 62 years ago, but when you are responsible for the most destructive thing ever created, it's hard to shake that reputation.

That's even more so since the Los Alamos National Lab has been responsible for much of the nation's nuclear weapons research ever since then, and even today, its No. 1 responsibility is certifying that the nukes in our arsenal are still good to go.

Yet, given that LANL is ensuring that the United States is capable, at any time, of engaging in a nuclear war, it might surprise some people to find out that another chief task of many of its scientists and researchers is nonproliferation: studying ways to prevent the bad actors of the world from suddenly using weapons of mass destruction--nukes or something else--against innocent populations.

For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to stay away from politics here. But suffice it to say that this role is not new for LANL. It goes back even to the Manhattan Project.

And why not?

As Paul White, the national security adviser for LANL's director of operations, told me, "The people who know weapons and nuclear materials are the first people you would turn to for nonproliferation and limiting weapons."

It makes sense, I suppose. After all, even during the Manhattan Project, many of the physicists working on it were worried about the atomic bomb's consequences and were already thinking about ways to control such weapons.

And that's been true ever since, White told me during my visit to the lab, which I did as part of Road Trip 2007.

Today, the lab has "the widget guys here, as well as the big thinkers," said Nancy Ambrosiano, an LANL publicist. "It's soup to nuts in nonproliferation."

As an example of the lab's importance in this area, Ambrosiano explained that just a couple of weeks ago, Ollie Heinonen, the International Atomic Energy Agency's deputy director-general and director of safeguards, stopped in at LANL after a visit to Iran to discuss nonproliferation.

"He knows this is a place he can turn to for technical advice," said White.

The IAEA isn't the only one turning to LANL for advice, though.

White and Ambrosiano said that after the fall of the Soviet Union, LANL became one of the main sources of help for monitoring and tracking the nuclear weapons that used to belong to the Soviets and which were now in the hands of many of the newly autonomous governments that emerged.

Of course, in the post-September 11 world, one of the chief security concerns has been that terrorists might somehow get hold of one or more of these weapons and use them against the U.S. I asked about that, and White and Ambrosiano gently ducked the question, asserting that that was really a matter for the intelligence community.

"We'll ask them the question," White said. "But if they don't want to answer, that's OK."

But he also tried to assure me that the matter is in good hands.

"I'm confident (the intelligence community knows) how to provide the security at the places that need to be secure," White said.

Of course, that's not the message that we've been getting publicly for the last few years, but hey, White has the words "national security adviser" in his title, so maybe he knows more than most people.

Road Trip 2007 promo

Really, though, White and Ambrosiano seemed to be saying that LANL is about giving people the freedom to think about ways to solve the problem of making the world a safer place from the weapons we'd like to avoid showing up in public.

Part of that, then, is a software problem that the lab's scientists are working on: creating management and information systems that can make sense of the mountains of data that come from instruments used to monitor weapons systems in places like the former Soviet Union.

And in fact, White said, this kind of software traces back to ideas developed at the lab in the 1960s about how to build safeguards that the IAEA could use to monitor nuclear sites in countries that were signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But of course, not all the threats are nuclear.

White explained that since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the lab has been working on sophisticated bio-science capabilities designed to study things like anthrax and the effects of radiation on people.

Further, lab staffers have been spending a lot of time going over Doomsday scenarios and thinking about how to deal with them.

"You can't plan for it if you don't think it out," Ambrosiano said.

And, she said, while LANL isn't going to build the kinds of detectors that can monitor things like shipping containers for dangerous hidden weapons, the lab can work with the Department of Homeland Security on design and testing methods.

That said, the world is moving into a new nuclear age, and White said the lab is readying itself to help the transition.

That is because countries like Russia, China and India are turning increasingly to nuclear as a way to meet their populations' energy needs.

And that means, White suggested, that the lab is going to be called on to help create systems robust enough to help those countries--and others using nuclear power--meet those needs without risking the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Essentially, he said, that boils down to monitoring the transfer of nuclear fuel and spent nuclear fuel.

Fortunately, White and Ambrosiano said, there is a growing and fruitful partnership between the U.S. and Russia when it comes to these issues, and that makes it easier to think about them.

Ultimately, LANL has about 1,000 people who are dedicated to nonproliferation and what is known as threat reduction. But Ambrosiano said that the nature of the lab is that even if someone isn't specifically focused on a project, he or she may end up working on it anyway.

And that means that several thousand more people at the lab are spending at least some of their time on threat reduction.

"That's the kind of thing that's great" about LANL, Ambrosiano said. "Everyone works together."