Los Alamos National Labs with logo 2021

The science of policy

Three members of the National Nuclear Security Administration share their thoughts on innovation and how having a science a background is important for shaping policy.
March 1, 2019
The NNSA logo and portraits of three of its employees.

Kathleen Alexander, Mark Anderson, and Kevin Greenaugh of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

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“It’s all about the data and results—that is what energizes the workforce.” - Kathleen Alexander

Kathleen Alexander

Assistant Deputy Administrator for Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation in NNSA’s Office of Defense Programs

I oversee what is traditionally viewed as the science-based stockpile stewardship portfolio—theoretical, analytical, experimental, and computational capabilities. The organization also oversees all of our academic programs, as well as Laboratory Directed Research and Development, which is where a lot of innovation actually originates.

While providing oversight for our academic programs, I take the opportunity to speak with students about how compelling our mission is. I also emphasize that working on our mission requires a “we” perspective because we work in teams to contribute to the security of the nation.

We’ve been doing science-based stewardship for well over 20 years now. Materials continue to age while threats continue to surface and evolve. We must remain prepared to respond to new technical challenges and surprises. The questions we need to answer grow more challenging. Yet, we must continue to be responsive, agile, and resilient. We have to think outside our current set of acquisition programs so that we can challenge people beyond their current knowledge base.

In the past, our designers and engineers conducted a certain number of experiments as part of the journey to becoming experts. So how do we create experts in an era in which we’re not doing as many experiments? We still have to make sure staff members receive sufficiently challenging experiences so that they are prepared for the future. Additionally, it is important that we allow staff to take risks and recognize that when you allow for that risk taking, sometimes the good results don’t happen immediately.

We don’t want to be so success oriented that we start designing experiments to confirm what we already know. I often say to team members, “Tell me the experiment that might prove you’re wrong—and do it.”

In our experiments, we often require very fast diagnostics with high resolution to obtain the information we need. We’ve learned a lot from the hydrodynamic test facilities at the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DARHT) facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Flash X-ray Induction Linear Accelerator (FXR) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The time is right to apply that knowledge to the subcritical experiment program using state-of-the-art diagnostics at the NNSS. Subcritical experiments are a key tool in our toolkit, and it’s very important to collect as much information as we can from these experiments.

You can see and feel the enthusiasm and energy of the Nevada and laboratory workforces when they’re performing subcritical experiments and especially when they’re implementing new diagnostics. It’s all about the data and results—that is what energizes the workforce.

Mark Anderson

Director for the Office of Advanced Simulation and Computing and Institutional R&D

I run the advanced simulation and computing program at NNSA. Advanced simulation and computing is a major federal program that pushes the boundaries of computing and has been doing that since the beginning of stockpile stewardship.

Advanced simulation and computing has been at the forefront of high-performance computing R&D for over two decades since the first teraflop computer at Sandia and the first petaflop computer—Roadrunner—at Los Alamos, and we’re going to put an exaflop computer at Livermore in 2023. So we have gone up by six orders of magnitude in computing power, a million times. That’s a big jump in two decades.

After 20 years we are reevaluating what it means to be a leader in this field. We’ve been chasing the flops—floating point operations per second—ever since the beginning, with good reason. The laboratories and the designers initially thought that we could handle stockpile stewardship by higher-resolution calculations of weapons. We got to a point where we could do those higher-resolution calculations and we realized that at these higher resolutions, we need better physics. Whenever we reach a new threshold in computing power, we uncover new science issues that need to be resolved.

We’re not able to increase the density of transistors on a chip at the rate we were anymore. And so we’re looking at other methods of enhancing performance that may translate into more flops and may not. NNSA needs to pursue efficiency over flops from here on out.

The communication angle is actually extremely important. Any hint of science in a conversation can put certain people off, even if it’s necessary to truly answer the question. So it makes it a real challenge to communicate in terms that your audience can understand or is willing to accept.

It’s easier to work with the laboratories if they respect your background a little bit. I can participate in the discussions about how to solve problems in a way that federal program managers who don’t have that background cannot. Policy sets constraints, but being able to argue the value proposition pro or con is really important, and that means understanding the technical issues.

Anybody who has a technical background understands that you cannot demonstrate weapons are going to work without testing them. The question is: Can you build up a body of evidence that’s convincing and compelling enough that you do not need to test? That’s the Holy Grail we’ve been chasing for the past 25 years almost.

Originally, stockpile stewardship was this: We’re not going to change anything. We’re going to keep the weapons we have and just make sure they’re good. Then we started to realize, well, good forever? What does that mean? You start trying to refresh these weapons so they live longer, and all of a sudden things aren’t available that used to be. So you have to turn to additive manufacturing or to other materials, and all of a sudden, you’ve made changes, and you have to deal with those changes.

Kevin Greenaugh

Assistant Deputy Administrator for Strategic Partnership Programs

I worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a scientist and engineer, and when I came to the D.C. area to manage technical programs, it was a smoother transition. If you understand the science and engineering that you’re trying to manage, it’s helpful.

There’s an intersection between science and policy. For example, there’s a policy that established a moratorium on underground nuclear testing. So, what does that mean technically? What do you need to do in weapon programs to be able to certify that weapons will work as a result of that policy decision?
Another example of where policy intersects technology is nuclear weapons materials. The policy is to no longer use some hazardous materials in weapons, which results in qualification changes. You have to be able to qualify that components made from new materials will not impact weapon performance. You need scientific understanding to determine how policy can change technology, which can change weapon performance.

We want to be responsive to the stockpile. As we execute life extension programs, we consider certifiability and manufacturability. When you go down the path of manufacturability, you ask, how can I manufacture this component quicker, with improved performance and with minimal waste? That takes us down the path of new manufacturing approaches, such as additive manufacturing. Then we have to ask, how can we qualify something that introduces different material properties, such as grain structures, while not impacting performance?

Lastly, strategic partnership projects and technology transfer enable weapons activities. In both programs, capabilities at our sites are used to help other agencies meet their missions, while exercising NNSA site core capabilities. Technology transfer, resourced by programs such as Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, often results in technologies that support weapon activities while improving local and global markets through commercialization. These are valuable by-products of the weapons program that normally are unappreciated.