Message Resonates in Research, Engineering Community
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.
giving hope that the program, which some thought had lost its
luster, is regaining its priority status.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
been a deep source of concern within the scientific community,
Staffin said, leaving the impression that the program had slipped
in national importance.
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?’”
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.
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.”
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.
it’s time to re-evaluate the current program.
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.”
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
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.
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
the Stockpile Stewardship Program offers scientific, engineering
and systems challenges that the work force finds “stimulating.”
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
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.
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.
Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship program
supports about 8,000 graduate students every year in fields
important to national defense needs.
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.
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
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.
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.”
hope that Gates’ words foretell broader challenges and
opportunities in store for the nuclear weapons community.
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.