New Video Chronicles Two Decades of Successful Stockpile Stewardship

Miles O’Brien

Miles O'Brien

"Hello, I'm Miles O'Brien. Welcome to Los Alamos. As you know, this is the birthplace of the atomic bomb. Over the years, the weapons devised here have literally changed the course of human history. And in fact, now, it is no longer pie-in-the-sky thinking to imagine a world without nuclear weapons. So what does that mean in a place like Los Alamos? It's not what you think."

So begins "Heritage of Science," a 15-minute video produced by Los Alamos National Laboratory. The video chronicles two decades of Laboratory work in national security science and stockpile stewardship. It shows, in greater detail that ever before, the work performed at Los Alamos for the Stockpile Stewardship Program, including the science behind how weapons work, the changes that occur in weapons systems as they age, the manufacturing of replacement components, and the initiatives that keep an experienced workforce intact. The video also discusses the Laboratory's role in nuclear nonproliferation—minimizing the spread of nuclear weapons, fissile material (materials capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction), and weapons-applicable nuclear technology and science.

"Stockpile Stewardship is one of the nation's premier scientific and engineering programs," notes Bret Knapp, the acting principal associate director of the Weapons Program Directorate. "Los Alamos plays a key role in this program. The Laboratory is the design agency for the W76, W78, and W88 warheads, as well as for the B61 gravity bomb. Los Alamos is also the production agency for the W88 pit [the fissile core of a nuclear weapon's physics package]. Combined, these systems constitute the majority of the nation's nuclear deterrent."

Los Alamos does not stockpile nuclear weapons, nor does the Laboratory manufacture them. Since 1992, the United States has not conducted any full-scale nuclear tests. To ensure that, without such testing, the nuclear weapons in the stockpile will perform as designed, Los Alamos scientists rely on advanced computer simulations, hydrodynamic tests, and subcritical experiments.

Using conventional explosives, Los Alamos scientists perform subcritical experiments to test the basic properties of plutonium driven to high pressures. Subcritical experiments do not generate sustained nuclear chain reactions and thus do not produce nuclear explosions.

As explained in the video, Los Alamos computer scientists have developed three-dimensional, full-motion computer models that can predict the behavior of weapons materials and components—and ultimately, the overall performance of a nuclear weapon. These simulations combine data gleaned from past nuclear tests and from hundreds of individual experiments on everything from the most basic materials (such as metals, plastics, and foams) to the most complex weapons components, such as plutonium and high explosives.

Los Alamos scientists also perform hydrodynamic tests, using high explosives and powerful electrical currents to create some of the unique conditions inside a nuclear weapon during the nuclear explosion, including the liquefying of plutonium (hence the term, hydrodynamic). They then take x-ray snapshots to capture these processes, which take place in a millionth of a second. The x-rays enable researchers to study the shapes, densities, and distribution of materials during detonation.

"I believe that this video will help viewers gain a deeper understanding of the complexity behind Stockpile Stewardship, the elements that make it up, and its technical challenges," says John Bass of the Laboratory's Information Resource Management Division. Bass served as the production's line producer and director. "They will also be shown the part nuclear weapons play in the world today and the trends toward managing the stockpile for the future—all this on high-definition video."

"The taxpayers deserve to understand how Los Alamos uses the significant financial resources provided by the government to help ensure the security of the United States," adds Jon Ventura of the Laboratory's Principal Associate Directorate, Weapons Programs. "We hope viewers gain a better understanding of the increasingly complex technical challenges confronting the nation's security and subsequently Los Alamos as it seeks to sustain the nuclear deterrent. The film highlights some of the unique technology (experimental and computational) and technical excellence resident only at Los Alamos. We also hope that viewers will get a sense of the commitment of Los Alamos staff and management to meeting the nation's security challenges."

The video also shows how the role of nuclear weapons in the national security of the United States continues to evolve. As the video notes, it takes a weapons laboratory to understand a weapons laboratory. As other nations may decide to develop nuclear weapons, it takes the expertise and the facilities of a weapons laboratory like Los Alamos to understand what those nations are doing.

"The broadly embraced goal of moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons will require the talents and ingenuity of Los Alamos," says Joe Martz of the Seaborg Institute. "The work of Los Alamos not only is consistent with this new landscape, but also is essential in moving toward this goal."

"It's my hope that visitors to the Bradbury Science Museum learn that the people of Los Alamos National Laboratory are our greatest strength," says Kevin Roark, the media relations specialist for the Principal Associate Directorate, Weapons Programs, who worked on the script and served as one of the project's producers. "I would like everyone who sees the new video to maybe realize that although the specific work we do has changed significantly over the years, our role today is essentially the same as it's always been: to apply the best science and technology available to solving the toughest national security problems that are out there."

Hosting the video is Miles O'Brien, a former CNN broadcast news journalist best known for this coverage of the U.S. space program. O'Brien has his own production company and creates stories for the PBS New Hour, the Discovery Science Channel. and the National Space Foundation. Interviewed on the video are United States Secretary of Defense William Perry, Laboratory Director Charles McMillan, and Los Alamos scientists, including David Funk, Tim Goorley, Deniece Korzekwa, Frank Merrill, Nathaniel Morgan, and Kim Scott.

"Heritage of Science" will be screened at the Bradbury Science Museum's Weapons Theater every day that the museum is open. The video will be shown every 20 minutes. More than 80,000 people visit the museum each year. The Laboratory is also studying the possibility of making the video available on the Web.

The museum is located at 1350 Central Avenue in downtown Los Alamos. It is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays and Mondays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Admission is free. For more information, visit

–Octavio Ramos Jr.

Proposed National Park Will Honor MANHATTAN PROJECT


In July the Obama administration announced that it will ask Congress to establish a new three-unit national historical park to preserve remaining U.S. resources used in the Manhattan Project, the secret World War II effort to develop atomic bombs. The Manhattan Project National Historical Park would include wartime facilities and sites in Los Alamos, New Mexico (design and assembly of the wartime bombs); Oak Ridge, Tennessee (uranium enrichment); and Hanford, Washington (plutonium production).

"The Manhattan Project was one of the most important events in our nation's history. I believe it is important for us to acknowledge its legacy, and a National Historical Park is the best way to achieve that goal," says Jeff Bingaman, U.S. senator from New Mexico. The proposed park has received strong support from New Mexico's federal Congressional delegation, including Senators Bingaman and Tom Udall, retired senator Pete Domenici, and Congressman Ben R. Lujan. Work toward the goal began in earnest in 2004, when Senator Bingaman and Representative Doc Hastings of Washington co-sponsored legislation authorizing a National Park Service feasibility study.

During the study the Park Service reported strong public approval for conserving the Manhattan Project sites.

Says Senator Udall, "Telling the story of the Manhattan Project will serve as a useful educational tool, especially for those generations who didn't live through World War II or the Cold War. . . . I am pleased that we are now taking the next important step toward preserving this history for future generations."

In Los Alamos, if the park becomes reality, parts of the project's story will be told through sites still on Laboratory land, specifically those associated with work leading to the 1940s plutonium implosion bomb (Fat Man) and the gun-type uranium bomb (Little Boy). In town, park sites will include the former residence of J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific head of the project, and Fuller Lodge, the social center for Manhattan Project scientists during the war.

"DOE will be a major player in the development of the park management plan," says Ellen D. McGehee, the Laboratory's historic buildings manager. In announcing the proposal this summer, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar explained that DOE would continue managing and operating the Laboratory facilities associated with the Manhattan Project, while the National Park Service would provide interpretation and education in connection with those resources.

–Ashley Martinez


Revival Meetings: Return of the Weapons Working Group

Worked checking laser

A worker checks a laser diagnostic used on the Barolo subcritical experiment, recently conducted at the U1a underground test complex in Nevada. Barolo is one of the myriad experiments discussed at Weapons Working Group meetings.

Weapons Working Group (WWG) meetings at LANL have served as a classified forum for discussing nuclear weapons issues for more than 50 years. In April 2011, after an 18-month hiatus, monthly WWG meetings were resumed with an expanded scope and new format that will keep the scientists and engineers in the Los Alamos weapons community up to speed with the broad range of experiments that feed into the Nuclear Weapons Program.

"We are attempting to draw in the enormous wealth of scientific and engineering expertise that exists throughout the Laboratory," says WWG coordinator Mark Potocki of X Theoretical Design (XTD) Division, Primary Physics Group (XTD-3). "I encourage everyone in the weapons community to participate in the meetings."

WWG meetings are an interdisciplinary forum for disseminating the scientific and technical information that is crucial to the modern Nuclear Weapons Program.

The meetings provide an interactive setting at which experimental plans and results can be shared with a diverse and knowledgeable audience. The goal is not only to inform the weapons community but also to capture timely feedback from people with different technical backgrounds and viewpoints. Their input can aid the experimenters and analysts and often serves as a "reality check" about what experiments do, or do not, reveal.

The Nuclear Weapons Program conducts a wide range of experiments that generate vital data for the Stockpile Stewardship Program and the Laboratory's global-security efforts. Weapons-relevant experiments are now conducted at dozens of facilities across the nuclear weapons complex. These experiments range from small-scale tests designed to isolate a physics effect or measure a fundamental property of a particular material to full-scale experiments used to study the complex physics of implosions in realistic weapons configurations.

"It's difficult to keep up with all the experiments being done today," says Michael Bernardin, leader of XTD Division. Bernardin played a leading role in reviving the WWG. "The new WWG meetings are meant to provide a 'one-stop shopping' experience, a place to learn about upcoming experiments and hear fresh results."

Each WWG meeting begins with 10-minute briefings from three Laboratory leaders who have their fingers on the pulse of the experimental programs: Dave Funk, Weapons Experiments Division leader; Rick Martineau, program manager for Science Campaign 2, Dynamic Materials Properties; and Doug Fulton, Physics Division leader.

Funk gives updates on hydrodynamic tests (tests of nuclear weapons without their fissile materials) at both Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories. Martineau covers plutonium experiments conducted at multiple sites across the nuclear weapons complex, and Fulton presents material-dynamics experiments conducted at the Los Alamos Proton Radiography facility and elsewhere. Fulton also covers high-energy-density experiments executed on the University of Rochester's Omega laser, Livermore's National Ignition Facility, and Sandia National Laboratories' pulsed-power machine, called Z.

The briefings are followed by a 40-minute feature presentation delving into topical issues in detail. For example, WWG audiences have recently heard from Laboratory Fellow Gary Wall, XTD-3, about experiments being conducted for the Scaling and Surrogacy project, and from Laboratory Fellow John Pedicini, XTD-3, about the designs being considered for extending the life of an Air Force weapon.

WWG meetings have long been an important communications channel for the Nuclear Weapons Program. Harold Agnew, who would later become the Laboratory's third director, founded the WWG in 1960 as the major decision-making committee for warhead development. WWG meetings were held through the end of the Cold War to keep the weapons workers informed about the planning, execution, and results of underground nuclear tests. When nuclear testing was halted in 1992, the focus of the meetings shifted to hydrodynamic and subcritical tests (tests of nuclear weapons with their fissile materials sufficiently reduced to avoid a nuclear explosion). Other topics, including specific materials science issues and the evaluation of missile flight tests, were also covered.

Agnew also established the process for documenting the meetings in written form, a practice that continues to this day. More than 540 WWG meetings have been held, leaving behind an extensive historical archive of valuable nuclear weapons information.

WWG meetings are held on the first Thursday of each month in the Strategic Computing Complex auditorium. The meetings are classified, so attendance is restricted to Q-cleared Los Alamos employees with Sigmas 1–11. Anyone interested in receiving email announcements of upcoming WWG meetings is encouraged to contact Mark Potocki (, 667-4634).

–Craig Carmer

Students Intern at National Security Science Magazine

Ashley Martinez

Ashley Martinez, Undergraduate Student, University of New Mexico

Students wanting to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory are in luck. The Laboratory is a major employer of students—about 1200 in 2011. The starting pay for students is over $13 an hour and is dependent on their level of education.

"The Lab provides great opportunities for experiencing real-world problems in a variety of different scenarios," Richard Rivera told me. Rivera is a student at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Soccoro. Rivera worked this summer as an intern in the Network Infrastructure Group (NIE-1), which designs and installs the Laboratory's local area networks and provides access to Laboratory computing resources. As a student in electrical engineering, Rivera found his NIE-1 assignments perfectly relevant to his studies.

I have had four internships, beginning in 2008 at the end of high school. I worked for NIE-1 for three summers and did independent mapping of servers using a program called Spectrum. Mapping out servers gives NIE-1 a picture of what is in server closets—useful information for when people respond to trouble calls. After a few semesters at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, I decided to study professional writing and found a new student position in the Information Resource Management Division, Communication Arts and Services (CAS) group. CAS offered me work experience relevant to my degree.

I was given the opportunity to work with National Security Science (NSS) magazine. Working with NSS has given me experience in professional writing and editing. I now have five pieces of writing published at the Laboratory. I have also learned how much work it takes to publish a professional magazine.

I learned a great deal from my mentors at CAS, but the best part of my LANL experience was getting to see my own writing in print. It is an amazing feeling to see your own work go into print for the world to read.

–Ashley Martinez

This summer NSS had the opportunity to work with two students. Ashley Martinez and Marisa Sandoval made significant contributions to the magazine.

Marisa Sandoval

Marisa Sandoval, Graduate Student, University of Arizona

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