W HEN THE SOVIET UNION DISSOLVED IN 1991, AMERICA’S CONFLICT WITH ITS ONLY MAJOR NUCLEAR RIVAL DISSOLVED WITH IT. WHEN THE DUST SETTLED, ONLY A HANDFUL OF NATIONS WERE KNOWN TO HAVE NUCLEAR CAPABILITIES, AND IN THE NEW WORLD COMMUNITY, NONE POSED AN IMMEDIATE THREAT TO THE UNITED STATES.
THE U.S. RESPONDED TO THE NEW PARADIGM BY STOPPING DEVELOPMENT OF NEW WEAPONS AND SHRINKING THE SIZE OF ITS ARSENAL.
MORATORIUMS ON NUCLEAR TESTING, BOTH FORMAL AND INFORMAL, WERE PUT IN PLACE IN NATIONS ALL OVER THE GLOBE, INCLUDING THE UNITED STATES. WITH FEW EXCEPTIONS, THE NUCLEAR QUESTION LARGELY DROPPED OFF THE RADAR SCREEN.
THINGS REALLY CHANGED WHEN TERRORISTS STRUCK ON SEPT. 11, 2001. AMONG THE MYRIAD NEW THREATS OCCUPYING THE MINDS OF AMERICANS WAS AN OLD ONE: THE BOMB.
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With more than 8,000 employees, the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in Livermore, Calif, carries as its foremost responsibility the research and development of the United States’ nuclear arsenal. The man running the lab is George Miller (67; M.S . ‘69 PhD ‘72) and his job is extremely complex. While the lab’s focus is primarily on national security; he is quick to point out that 80 percent of the work done at Lawrence Livermore is unclassified.
“The science and technology we pursue help to meet societal needs that are far broader than just the national security arena,” says Dr. Miller. For example, in the 1970s the lab developed “cell sorters” and other technologies that helped make the Human Genome Project possible. Lawrence Livermore participated in this international effort, and now genomics expertise is being applied to develop biological agent detectors for homeland security
Currentlv the lab’s largest single project is construction of the massive National Ignition Facility (NIF), a stadium-sized structure with 192 powerful lasers. The lasers will be aimed at a single small target to create miniature star; burning at nearly 100 million degrees due to nuclear fusion. In addition to its utility in testing weapon simulation codes, the NIF will play a major role in the development of nuclear fusion energy as well as the study of stellar evolution.
Miller is as multifaceted as the NW a project he directed before being selected to lead the Lawrence Livermore Lab. He credits his William and Mary liberal arts education with giving him a wider flocus than just nuclear physics.
‘It’s a very different set of skills than what you learn as a physics student at grad school,” he says. “Some of the things I find curious and interesting — because I spend a lot of time on airplanes are reading history biographies, economics and sociology instead of technical stuff I attribute that to the liberal arts exposure at William and Mary That education benefited me personally, even though they’re not top-pics I deal with on a regular basis.”
The bulk of his work at Lawrence l,ivcrimore remains centered on sustaining the nation’s nuclear arsenal. George Miller’s current job makes him rcsponsible for the most destructive offensive weapons in human history — with the goal that they never he used.
Since the end of World War 11, the American nuclear arsenal has had one primaly purpose: deterrence. Theoretically, NO nation would strike with nuclear weapons knowing they’d immediately become the target of nuclear retaliation. The mere existence of such weapons, then, acts as a safeguard against nuclear attack.
“They’:e as much instruments of international diplomacy as they are technological objects,” Miller states, and there is hardly a better example of that than the Cold War.
For more than seven decades, the U.S. and Soviet arsenals sat (mostly) dormant in a silent, ominous standoff. Each side knew two things: the potency of the opposition weapons and their willingness to retaliate if provoked. Despite a handful of crisis situations, the Cold War came to a close without a single hostile nuclear explosion.
Nuclear deterrence has worked extremely well. It’s been one of the most stable periods in history, as measured by the lack of major conflicts and loss of lives,” says Miller (If the Cold War. “Nuclear weapons did that:’
The Cold War, however is oven. Nuclear weapons remain. Only this time, no one thinks they will come from Soviet ballistic missiles------they are afraid of a terrorist obtaining a weapon and detonating it amidst an unsuspecting populace.
Testing Without Testing
The North Korean government had worked for years to construct a weapon still less powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. Marked as a ‘rogue state” member of the Axis of Evil, Pyongyang backed out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003 and was no longer bound by testing bans. North Korea acted as if it were free to test their weapon at will, and did.
The United States , on the other hand, has to set an excellent example. Since 1992, the U.S. has maintained a moratorium on nuclear testing, whether above or underground. Regardless, the U.S. must ensure the safety, security and reliability of its weapons in order to possess a smaller-sized, effective deterrent without actually testing a weapon of its own.
Possessing that deterrent remains a cornerstone of U.S. national security policy “ It is a very important and very complicated technical challenge, to be able to maintain something as complicated as a nuclear weapon without doing nuclear testing,” says Miller. The way we have approached that problem is to combine exquisite calculations....... with exquisite experiments.”
Exquisite calculations aren’t the half ot it.
“The promise of science and technology advances to better understand weapons performance is what allowed President Clinton to go forward with the cessation of nuclear testing,” Miller states. With the help of the world’s most powerful computers, IBM’s Blue Gene L, the Lawrence Livermore lab can ensure working weapon without any nuclear detonation taking place. Using a process known as “massively parallel computing,” 100,000 processors work in concert to simulate a functioning nuclear weapon. Simulations are millions of times faster and more detailed than what had been possible. And the simulation models benefit from greatly improved data from non nuclear tests.
North Korea’s real—world test itself took only a fraction of a second, but it was a failure-----at least by some counts. The U.S. confirmed the October test with air samples of radiation and determined that the weapon resulted in significantly less than the intended yield. The North Koreans had a bomb, after years of diplomatic tug—of--- war, but how much of a bomb was it?
“I would submit that the North Korean regime got what they wanted,’ Miller said. “The fact that they got the reaction is more important than the yield of the bomb. If used in anger, it’d certainly be a big problem.”
A Big Problem.
O NE OF THE CENTRAL CHALLENGES of the WAR ON TERROR has been the elusiveness of terrorist groups: they have no country to invade, nor must they abide by the conventions of war. Mutually assured nuclear destruction can’t apply to a small group of well— financed and determined terrorists; what good is deterrence if the aggressor can’t easily face retaliation?
So what if Pyongyang sells one of their handful of nuclear weapons to a terrorist organization? According to Amy Oalkes, assistant professor of government at William and Mary North, Korea has a history of dabbling in the arms trade.
“Every military technology they’ve had, they’ve sold,” says Oakes, but only to other governments, not terrorist. With no known ties between North Korea and terrorist organizations, side of a nuclear weapon to such a non—state actor is not a likely scenario,” says Oakes.
Preparing for terrorism, though, requires readiness for all scenarios, regardless of likelihood. While ensuring the safety and reliability of the nation’s own nuclear weapons arsenal will remain the Lab’s top mission, Lawence Livermore has also developed a number of additional focus to fit the changing world order.
“It’s a very different emphasis from what we focused on, dealing with the U.S.S.R,” Miller states. There’s a very significant national program associated with non-state actors and smaller states that might wish to cause the country problems.
One aspect of that program is what Miller calls “nuclear forensics,” which is what it sounds like: a way to find the culprit from the evidcnce left behind. It would be fair to say though, it’s somewhat more intricate than that.
“There are subtle signatures in all the different materials: how it was made, how it was processed,” Miller says . “We do spend research dollars on how to improve those techniques. “The federal government invests 1200 million dollars a year at the lab on homeland security nonproliferation and intelligence research.
Nuclear foiensics amounts to a sort of radioactive USJ, and it doesn’t come cheaply : It is, howevei; immensely valuable.
Hypothetically, if North Korea sold a nuclear weapon to a terrorist and that terrorist used it against American interests at home or abroad, nuclear forensics” could make a big diflèrence in national policy.
According to Professor Oakes, this could mean retaliation against the suppling nation as if they had set oft the bomb themselves. She puts it in no uncertain terms. “I don’t think its au exaggeration to say it would be suicidal for the supplier.”
21st -Century Deterrence
T he chain of responsibility , made possible by nuclear forensics, puts a new sort of deterrence back into effect. Nowadays, it’s not thousands of warheads poised to devastate an entire country It’s the confidence to know that the appropriate response country will be meted out, thanks in part to the work of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
“Should something unthinkable happen, we would at least be in a position to say who did it and where it came from,” says Miller. He considers his work a way to benefit the United States as a whole. “Nuclear weapons and nonproliferation are incredibly complex and difficult technical problems; to work on something that is very important and highly technically challenging is certainly very rewarding,” he says.
That said, Miller recognizes that Lawrence Livermore ‘s work with nuclear weapons is inherently controversial. Protestors are part of the deal when it comes to nonproliferation and weapons of mass destruction.
‘We’re doing something that I feel is really important, that has benefited the security of the country. That has been the foremost motivation in my mind.”
Miller knows the value of his work, and it’s not as simple as building and testing weapons. The lab he directs at Lawrence Livermore is capable of maintaining our nuclear capability While simultaneously fostering techrology that discourages a new rooster of potential enemies with old-fashioned deterrence.
WILLIAM & MARY Magazine
Winter 2006/2007 (Pgs. 46-49) Vol. 72. No. 1
Thanks to George Miller and the Lawrence livermore National Laboratory, America’s best ofiense remains its best defense and not a single weapon has to explode. •
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