Flush times over, nuclear weapons lab seeks new work to do

December 06, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

LIVERMORE, CALIF — LIVERMORE, Calif. -- The halcyon days are over for the nuclear weapons designers in Livermore. Gone are the days when they contentedly toiled long hours on bombs that pushed the edge of nuclear physics, motivated by the heady knowledge that their secret work carried the nation's highest priority and drew almost unlimited funding.

The best work of these physicists and engineers is history now, from the nuclear warhead for the Polaris missile in the 1950s to the bomb for the B-1 bomber in the '80s.

Today, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory -- stuck between that prosperous, sometimes exhilarating, past and an unknown future -- is trying to reinvent itself, and not without formidable obstacles. And many of its workers are equally uncertain about their own futures.

"People aren't sure what they're supposed to be doing," said Robert Budwine, a weapons physicist who recently took a retirement buyout the lab offered. "In the weapons program in particular, there's almost a total lack of leadership or guidance about where we're going."

Lawrence Livermore Director John Nuckolls is keenly aware of the lab's altered status and endangered billion-dollar-a-year budget. He has his eye firmly on the horizon as he strives to find a new mission for the facility -- perhaps in biomedicine, fusion energy, environmental cleanup and industrial technology -- while holding on to vestiges of the nuclear weapons work that has been the heart and soul of the "rad lab" since 1952.

The lab has signed scores of agreements to share weapons-related technology with private industry, but researchers say that without major new research programs, they will eventually run out of interesting ideas to sell.

The tugging between past and future, combined with the lack of clear direction from the Clinton administration and the almost universal belief among the lab's 7,000 employees that the institution has become bogged down in bureaucracy and red tape, has morale at a low ebb.

When the lab's employees were offered early retirement this fall, 743 of them -- 10 percent of the work force -- took the deal.

Calvin Wood, a veteran nuclear weapons designer, accepted the retirement offer. His anger is representative of many in the weapons program, the segment of the lab hardest hit by the changes.

He lays much of the blame for the lab's predicament on its growing bureaucracy, which he says has gone from promoting science to maintaining personal empires. "What we have now is a bunch of administrators who are more interested in their high salaries and those of their friends than they are in science," Mr. Wood said. "We've been trying to get the leadership at the lab to articulate goals, coherent rational goals."

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989; in 1991 George Bush launched a sweeping arms-control initiative that stopped in its tracks Livermore's last full-scale nuclear weapons project, the warhead for an airplane-carried missile known as the SRAM-II. The writing was on the wall, and the next year what the lab feared the most happened: A moratorium on underground nuclear testing struck at the heart of the lab's weapons culture.

In the lab's Defense Technologies Engineering Division, there are T-shirts that read: "Dinosaur Technologies Engineering Division -- Say No to Extinction." The mushroom cloud on the shirts has been grouped with the bow and arrow, the slingshot and the cannon as weapons whose time may have come and gone.

The individuals who have fared the best are often those who have moved on to new positions, and are typically younger workers.

Eileen Vergino is enthusiastic about her new job. Until recently she worked as an expert in detecting the underground nuclear tests of other countries. Now she heads the lab's science education effort, a growing program that works with teachers and administrators from the elementary school to college level, with special emphasis on minorities and women.

No one is certain of what to expect from the Clinton-Gore team, which is seen as pro-technology, though not pro-nuclear. Some lab administrators read President Clinton's speeches like tea leaves, hoping to divine some guidance. They winced when Mr. Clinton appointed lab critics from congressional staffs and the anti-nuclear Natural Resources Defense Council to influential positions in the Department of Energy.

Despite the pain, Lawrence Livermore now accepts that it must adapt and make itself useful to the nation in new ways or else die. Although much has been written about technology transfer agreements, lab managers have come to believe that basic research, rather than mere consulting contracts with manufacturers, must be the lab's key role.

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