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Keepin: Nonproliferation trailblazer

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By Roger Snodgrass

The “father of Los Alamos nuclear safeguards,” G. Robert Keepin, died Monday at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Santa Fe. He was 84 years old.Born in 1923, he was the son of a preacher and those who knew him best have remarked on his unique role as an apostle of nuclear safeguards and nonproliferation.Nancy Jo Nicholas, Nuclear Nonproliferation (N) Division leader, said in an announcement by Los Alamos National Laboratory this morning that Keepin had inspired generations of Los Alamos staff.“We will miss him, and we will dedicate ourselves to continuing his vision of a safer world,” she said.Keepin received a doctoral degree at Northwestern University and served as a post-doc at the University of Minnesota and an Atomic Energy Agency Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.He came to Los Alamos in 1952, where he worked at the Critical Assemblies Group at the Pajarito Site and wrote the materials for a textbook, Physics of Nuclear Kinetics.“At the same time, he became fired up about the notion of safeguards and nonproliferation,” said a longtime friend and protg, Doug Reilly. “This was when the Nonproliferation Treaty was being put together and the International Atomic Energy Agency was a part of that.”Keepin was a delegate to the First United Nations Atoms for Peace Conference held in Geneva in 1955. He headed the Physics Department at IAEA in Vienna from 1963-65.In early December 1966, Keepin and the lab’s second director, Norris Bradbury, established a small group in the N Division, which at the time was working on nuclear airplanes and rockets. The new group, called N-6, became the seed from which the modern N Division grew.In a prepared statement, former laboratory director Sig Hecker recalled Bradbury’s admonition that “one of the principal goals of Los Alamos was ‘to be certain that nuclear weapons were never again used in anger.’”He noted that the nonproliferation program that Keepin drove and inspired has contributed to that goal and that it has become the “largest such program in the world.”Keepin returned to IAEA again from 1983-85, as a special advisor to the deputy director general for safeguards, continuing and nurturing the close relationship with the international agency that continues in training and lab staffing exchanges today.Keepin was appointed a Laboratory Fellow in 1985. He retired in 1990 and was among the nominees for the 2007 Los Alamos Medal.A seminar celebrating the 40th anniversary of the nuclear safeguards paid tribute to Keepin, who returned the praise back to the full team of his colleagues who were involved in the program.On the occasion, Associate Director for Threat Direction Doug Beason and William H. Tobey, deputy director for defense nuclear nonproliferation of the National Nuclear Security Administration, announced that the first floor conference room at the Nonproliferation and International Security Complex would be named in Keepin’s honor.A subsequent meeting in July 2007 featured Ollie Heinonen, deputy director general and director of safeguards for IAEA.“Dr. Keepin pioneered a nuclear safeguards research program that resulted in the nondestructive assay, or NDA, method for the measurement of nuclear materials (uranium and plutonium) in whatever form they are found. NDA technology is now in active use at every nuclear facility in the world and by every nuclear regulatory agency,” Heinonen said in a statement.Keepin is also remembered for his parties, many of them at the family home “Casa del Mirador,” overlooking the Rio Grande in White Rock.“He was great fun to work with,” Reilly said. “If you gathered a group of people he worked with, we’d all have interesting stories.”The work of the laboratory on behalf of disarmament has not always been given its due, he added.“It was hard not to feel this was something that you really ought to devote yourself to,” Reilly said.Keepin is survived by his wife Madge, sons G. Robert Keepin III and William; daughters Mavis, Ardis and Denis; several grandchildren; and a brother William.Service arrangements are being handled by the Berardinelli Funeral Home of Santa Fe – 984-8600, www.berardinellifunderalhome.com.