McMillan talks of lab's past, present, future

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Los Alamos Primer> Director updates historic document

By The Staff

Los Alamos National Laboratory director Charlie McMillan offered a bit of a history lesson this week when the lab hosted a series of lectures and tours to celebrate its 70th anniversary.


McMillan cited the first Los Alamos Primer, which came out in 1943 and made up a second primer, which came out this week.

The first primer, though, relived what it was like for those recruited that made their way to Los Alamos to take part in the Manhattan Project.

“The U.S. entry into the Atomic Age had been slow and cautious. But when the United States entered World War II and faced the carnage of the war, fighting and genocide had already claimed millions of lives,” McMillan wrote.

“Obtaining the bomb before Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan was imperative. The brightest students (their average age was 24) were recruited from the nation’s best colleges and universities.

“They were joined by other recruits: some of the world’s preeminent scientists—for example, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, and Stanislaw Ulam—many of them refugees from Nazi Germany. The recruits were told very little other than their work might bring an end to the war. They were given one-way train tickets to the tiny town of Lamy, just south of Santa Fe. There they were met by government agents and spirited away to an undisclosed location in the mountains northwest of Santa Fe.

The recruits were met by J. Robert Oppenheimer along with Robert Serber.

Serber offered up a series of five lectures.

“The object of the project,” he explained to the first several dozen nervous new arrivals, “is to produce a practical military weapon in the form of a bomb in which the energy is released by a fast neutron chain reaction in one or more of the materials known to show nuclear fission.”

Serber began the Los Alamos lectures by presenting an essential introductory overview of the relevant nuclear physics. Next, he unveiled the most promising approaches, developed from the secret Berkeley seminars, for building the world’s first nuclear bomb.

Following each day’s lecture, Serber’s original notes were expanded and annotated, based on the questions and discussions traded between audience participants. Formulas, graphs, and simple drawings from the blackboard were added. The resulting 24-page document was mimeographed and handed out to every newly arriving Project Y scientist.

“The document, titled the Los Alamos Primer, was a slim and parsimonious but powerful map. Although it presented a definitive starting point and destination, and contained several clear landmarks in between, the exact route to building a nuclear weapon was still unclear,” McMillan wrote.

For two years, the Project Y scientists worked and by August 1945, they produced two completely different types of practical atomic weapons: Little Boy (a uranium gun-type device) and Fat Man (a plutonium implosion device).

As Oppenheimer put it, “There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry. There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors ... We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire.”

McMillan wrote about the Cold War with the Soviet Union and how the U.S. weapons efforts were eventually replaced in 1994 by the Stockpile Stewardship Program.

McMillan said Los Alamos went from designing, engineering, and testing nuclear weapons to stewarding the laboratory-designed weapons, which are aging in the nuclear stockpile, and doing this without full-scale testing. (Assessments of the stockpile are reported annually to the president.)

McMillan then turned to present times.

“The new challenges that stewardship presented the laboratory were, and still are, daunting. Assessing the health of the stockpile —then, now, and in the future—without additional full-scale testing, required building revolutionary new experimental facilities and investing in new supercomputing, engineering, and manufacturing capabilities.

“It took less than two-and-a-half years to build the first atomic bombs, but it has taken 20 years of the nation’s best scientific efforts to get the Stockpile Stewardship Program this far.”

McMillan wrote that Los Alamos has made significant strides in stewardship.

“Our supercomputers, where weapon simulations are done, are some of the fastest on the planet. Our Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Testing facility is producing world-class radiographs of weapon components. We have built plutonium pits to support the U.S. Navy and we are extending the service life of Navy and Air Force weapons.

But however significant our successes to date, great scientific challenges remain for Stockpile Stewardship — ensuring that the deterrence remains safe, secure, and effective without testing requires this capability for the long-term.”

But there are still problems.

The weapons involved depend on knowledge of complicated physics and there is the problem of the warhead components as they continue to age. McMillan said there has to be work done in the study of pit aging as well.

“As national and international political and economic landscapes shift, and as our science and technology improve, there is no foreseeable end in sight to the challenges of Stockpile Stewardship— or to the ways of meeting them,” McMillan wrote. “Yet today’s austere budget climate threatens our ability to optimally use the existing tools of Stockpile Stewardship; to complete lifetime extension programs (LEPs) with modern materials and manufacturing that meet U.S. military requirements while improving safety and security; and to build the downsized, modernized infrastructure, without which we will be unable to carry out our national security mission. In this difficult situation, the path ahead is unclear. But failure is not an option.”

The lectures earlier this week were essentially called the Second Los Alamos Primer as the lab commemorated its 70th anniversary.

And on Saturday, the lab will continue to celebrate its anniversary as it will host a picnic for all lab employees (former and present) and their families with most of the action taking place at Los Alamos High School.

Activities will include food, games, entertainment, and tours of various areas, including some lab sites. (These events are not open to the general public.)