Gates’ Nuclear Message Resonates in Research, Engineering Community

By Donna Miles

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ concerns raised this week about the state of the nuclear weapons program and a “serious brain drain” at laboratories that design and develop them is resonating within the research and engineering community.

It’s also giving hope that the program, which some thought had lost its luster, is regaining its priority status.

Gates raised concern during an Oct. 28 speech at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace that veteran nuclear weapons designers are retiring or leaving the work force. “Since the mid-1990s, the National Nuclear Security Administration has lost more than a quarter of its work force,” he said.

“Half of our nuclear lab scientists are over 50 years old, and many of those under 50 have had limited or no involvement in the design and development of a nuclear weapon,” he said. “By some estimates, within the next several years, three-quarters of the work force in nuclear engineering and at the national laboratories will reach retirement age.”

Gates’ observation was music to the ears of Robin Staffin, a veteran nuclear physicist who served as director for basic research within the Office of Defense Research and Engineering.

“If a secretary of defense makes a speech like this, this sets national priorities,” Staffin said. “Students and practicing scientists pick this up, and it is vitally important those you wish to attract and retain believe that it is nationally important that they are devoting their talents to a career which the nation values.”

Staffin said he remembers when the best and brightest minds flocked to the highly specialized field: nuclear engineers, nuclear physicists and material scientists. He spent 12 years himself at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, one of three major labs dedicated to nuclear weapons programs; the others, Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, are in New Mexico.

“The importance of nuclear weapons to the U.S. defense mission was very important to me and my colleagues,” Staffin said. “We were attracted into this field, not just by the very interesting and challenging science, but also by its implications on the national security side. … These were highly important national priorities, and critical toward the national defense, through deterrence, and the maintenance of peace in the world.”

Gates emphasized the importance of the nuclear weapons programs to U.S. national defense during his Carnegie Institution speech, declaring that the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile is safe, reliable and secure.

“The problem is the long-term prognosis, which I would characterize as bleak,” he said. “No one has designed a new nuclear weapon in the United States since the 1980s, and no one has built a new one since the early 1990s.”

In fact, Gates said, “the United States is the only declared nuclear power that is neither modernizing its nuclear arsenal nor has the capability to produce a new nuclear warhead.”

This has been a deep source of concern within the scientific community, Staffin said, leaving the impression that the program had slipped in national importance.

“We were in it because it was of great national significance, and appreciated,” he said. “And if it did not appear that the national leadership – the government, the system – appreciated it, some of us would ask, ‘Why are we doing this?’”

Meanwhile, opportunities appeared to be drying up and more and more technical know-how left the work force for retirement or jobs in the private sector. Last spring, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s layoff of more than 400 workers made national headlines. Many of those who received pink slips weren’t involved in nuclear weapons or proliferation work, but about 100 engineers, physicists and chemists were affected.

“It has had a significant impact on the morale at Lawrence Livermore,” Staffin said, and it confirmed some people’s perceptions that the nuclear mission had “decreased in perceived importance.”

But Gates made clear this week that he believes otherwise. He said the current nuclear stockpile was built on the assumption that it would be replaced as weapons approached their shelf life. “Sensitive parts do not last forever,” he said.

Gates said it’s time to re-evaluate the current program.

“To be blunt“ he said, “there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program.”

The department re-engineers its current stockpile to extend its lifespan, Gates said, but recognizes the risk of overstepping the narrow technical margins used to design and build them. “With every adjustment, we move farther away from the original design that was successfully tested when the weapon was first fielded,” he said.

Gates also raised concern about the Stockpile Stewardship Program the United States has used to maintain nuclear weapons and evaluate their reliability since the United States unilaterally stopped nuclear testing in 1992.

“No weapons in our arsenal have been tested since 1992, so the information on which we base our annual certification of the stockpile grows increasingly dated and incomplete,” Gates said. “At a certain point, it will become impossible to keep extending the life of our arsenal – especially in light of our testing moratorium. It also makes it harder to reduce existing stockpiles, because eventually we won’t have as much confidence in the efficacy of the weapons we do have.”

Staffin said the Stockpile Stewardship Program offers scientific, engineering and systems challenges that the work force finds “stimulating.”

“It presents the challenge of, ‘How do you maintain nuclear weapons without testing?’” he said. “And it requires a deeper understanding of the science and engineering of nuclear weapons, because you do not have new data from nuclear weapons tests.”

That takes a highly specialized work force – something Staffin said the Defense Department has worked to maintain through a variety of education programs, internships and recruiting programs.

The National Defense Education Program, for example, invests in science, engineering and math education from middle school through post-college graduation with the goal of developing a new generation of scientists and engineers at the national defense laboratories.

The National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship program supports about 8,000 graduate students every year in fields important to national defense needs.

The National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowship program provides extensive, long-term financial support to distinguished university faculty scientists and engineers who conduct unclassified, basic research on topics of interest to the department.

Other Defense Department programs target high school students “to channel interest into those areas of science and engineering which are critical to supporting these defense missions,” Staffin said.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department is expanding its use of flexible hiring authority and internships to bring the best possible people on board, reported Alan R. Schaffer, the Defense Research and Engineering Office’s principal deputy director.

“The Defense Department recognizes the importance of generating and recruiting talent,” he said. “There are a myriad of opportunities for students – from high school to graduate programs – to intern at Department of Defense laboratories, and we encourage people to take advantage of the opportunities.”

Staffin expressed hope that Gates’ words foretell broader challenges and opportunities in store for the nuclear weapons community.

“Just to have this kind of recognition makes a strong statement and goes a long way to demonstrate the importance the national leadership holds for this field,” he said.