Directors talk of past, future of lab

-A A +A
By Tris DeRoma

In 1942, America’s scientists and military leaders were locked in a race with the Axis Powers to create an atomic weapon, a weapon that in theory would be the most powerful and destructive weapon ever conceived by man.


Everyone involved in the secret project knew that it was a race America and it’s wartime allies couldn’t lose.

The problem, however, was that the intellectual power and resources needed to create such a weapon were scattered across the free world.

In 1943, at the request of U.S. Army General Leslie Groves, scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and others, the world’s best and brightest assembled in Los Alamos to design, build and test the world’s first atomic weapon. What’s now known as the Los Alamos National Laboratory was created, and it’s been working to solve the most complicated national security problems of our time ever since, whether that’s nuclear proliferation, climate change or terrorism.

Seventy-five years later, a panel of the lab’s five out of 10 past lab directors and the lab’s 11th Director Dr. Terry Wallace Jr. met for a public discussion at LANL’s campus, at the Pete V. Domenici Auditorium, July 31 to discuss the unique concept of a national laboratory, a once untried concept that has become the norm.

Wallace started the discussion, noting the lab’s mission has evolved from combating one national security threat to many.

“In December of 1943, there was no certain future for Los Alamos at all. It was a single purpose laboratory,” Wallace said. “Even though big science was created here essentially to create the atomic bomb, nobody had a plan for afterwards.

“…Today, we look at the national security threats to the nation, and they don’t look like what they did in 1943, 1945, 1970, certainly not when any of our terms started, but they are just as compelling, just as difficult.”

Past directors who attended the discussion included Donald M. Kerr, 1979-1985; John C. Browne, 1997-2003; Robert Kuckuck, 2005-2006; Michael R. Anastasio, 2006-2011 and Charles McMillan, 2011-2017.

While the directors talked about individual challenges the lab faced when they assumed the role of lab director, most of them noted it was the people that made up the lab’s workforce that ultimately helped them through each challenge.

Browne, who was director during the Cerro Grande fire, remarked how it only took two weeks for the laboratory to open after the fire, which claimed some of the buildings on lab property.

“That was the result of employees, everyone coming together to make that happen,” Browne said.

Kuckuck was director in the weeks leading up to the lab’s first major shift in management since the lab’s beginnings. The for-profit consortium, Los Alamos Security LLC was about to take over from the University of California sole management model, and many people were scared and unhappy about it, noted Kuckuck.

“…Five very senior people came to me and said they were going to leave. Retirement notices doubled. The challenge to me was to preserve the most important asset of the laboratory, which was the people,” Kuckuck said. “I felt that was the biggest challenge facing us, keeping this asset alive. “

Kuckuck said he never lost faith in the people who stayed.

“Everyone wanted to hand them a laboratory that was the best shape it could be, and they did,” Kuckuck said.

The directors also talked about the problems.

The one problem that dominated the discussion was how the lab was going to adapt to its new core mission, maintaining the nuclear stockpile, which came into focus during the 1990s. The panel noted that when President Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996, the immediate problem become came how does the lab gauge the reliability of the nuclear arsenal without physical testing.

Browne recalled a U.S. Senate hearing where he and others were asked whether it was possible.

“We said we were highly confident, but we could not guarantee,” Browne said.

“…The point is we didn’t have the tools at that time. We had people with experience with nuclear testing, but what we were worried about was whether we were going to have people 20 years from now, like today, who were going to have the expertise and the knowledge, so it was really going to be a process of developing the people, the tools.”

McMillan, Wallace’s predecessor, noted that according to him, the lab succeeded in that directive. McMillan recalled a meeting between officials from the Department of Energy and the nation’s national labs in 1999 where the same question was asked.

“I think it was George Miller (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) who stood up and answered ‘we’ll never know unless we given it the good college try.’ Those are the words I remember, and that’s what we’ve done and at some level,

I think it’s worked better than many of us even hoped it would back then,” McMillan said. “We’ve been able to use the tools of stewardship to solve real world problems with the stockpile.

As for the future of Los Alamos National Laboratory, some directors on the panel noted the national laboratory concept has survived because of that same reason.

“I would argue that the most important jobs lab directors have is being prepared to take on the most important national challenges before anyone can articulate what they are,” Anastasio said. “So how can we be ready take on the national challenges of ten years from now that will be important ten years from now. Congress doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about that, the DOE doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about that. That’s one of the unique roles the lab director has to play.”

Wallace said the concept of gathering the best and brightest under one roof to solve difficult complicated problems will always be needed.

“The fact of the matter is we’re solving problems that is the next generation beyond stockpile stewardship now,” Wallace said.  “We have to solve the stewardship problem, but we’re asked how that interacts in a rapidly changing, science and technology world. So that is the ultimate big science problem. It’s the laboratory’s ability to pool that talent to find a solution, but not be about the individual science component, the paper, that makes it very unique.”