Spy scandal: relaxed security fosters brilliant research

by Colin Macilwain

The three US nuclear weapons laboratories are in a state of political siege this month, with politicians calling for radical change in their governance after allegations of Chinese spying at Los Alamos.

Washington is demanding drastic reform in the way the labs do business. In a colourful attempt to dampen the furore, the man in charge, energy secretary Bill Richardson, is quoted as saying that those who put the security system together `must’ve been smoking dope or drunk’.

But that security system is partly the cause of the technical success of the weapons programme.

Los Alamos in New Mexico is the birthplace of the atomic bomb. Lawrence Livermore in California is the rival establishment that created the hydrogen bomb, while Sandia, also in New Mexico, is the engineering laboratory which incorporates the physics from the other two labs into nuclear weapons.

From the outset, it was acknowledged that the best technical people would not want to work as government employees – least of all under military control – so a quasi-academic laboratory model was developed to accommodate them.

Those at Livermore and Los Alamos are employees of the University of California, which runs the laboratories for the government. Lockheed Martin takes on the same contractor role at Sandia.

Although physical security at all three laboratories is tight, the areas immediately inside the fence enjoy a relaxed atmosphere, in which nuclear weapons experts rub shoulders with climatologists, geneticists, electronic engineers and others from around the world.

Inside a second security ring, the highly classified weapons work takes place. But scientists here are encouraged to spend time on non-classified research, mixing with the wider world of science and engineering outside the restricted confines of the weapons programme.

This inevitably involves contact with foreign scientists, some of whom will try to make contacts to help them penetrate the nuclear weapons programme.

This is the bargain between secrecy and scientific excellence which the weapons laboratories have maintained for more than 50 years. A counter-intelligence operation has tried continually to control the penetration efforts.

The result is that the US has a world-leading technical capability in this field – but that ideas do leak from the programme: according to one former director of Los Alamos, nothing can be kept secret for much more than 10 years.

This model is set to survive because, despite current rhetoric, policy-makers know very well that it works.