Environmental Issues > Nuclear Energy, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Main Page > All Nuclear Energy, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Documents

Report page


In November 1996, when the DOE first announced that it would form the Academic Strategic Alliances Program, ASCI Program Manager Alex Larzelere stated DOE's expectations regarding this new Defense Programs initiative:

The problem of simulating the aging and enduring [nuclear] stockpile is harder than anything the labs have done . . . The participation of the universities also will serve as an outside endorsement of DOE's plan to make extensive use of simulations for ensuring the continued reliability and safety of the weapons stockpile . . . They can also help train the next generation of experts to succeed the rapidly aging cadre of nuclear weapons scientists at the labs (emphasis added).[104]

The gravity of their work notwithstanding, nuclear weapons experts do not age more rapidly than other experts. What Larzelere referred to in 1996, and what is an important aspect of overall SSMP planning, is the eventual retirement of nuclear weapon designers who participated in the testing program. DOE cites the time frame of 2003-2006 as a critical juncture -- one-half of the national laboratory staff of test-trained nuclear weapon designers will have retired and the current U.S. nuclear stockpile will have aged beyond 20 years (on average), or beyond the realm of significant sample experience with changes that aging may induce in nuclear weapon components and materials, and therefore in the nuclear explosive performance of military stockpile weapons.

DOE argues that these concerns drive the schedule of ASCI, and necessitate the involvement of the universities if the greatly enhanced computer simulation capabilities are to mature when they are needed to predict when, and how seriously, any observed deterioration due to "aging" will degrade nuclear explosive performance The DOE seeks to develop the next-generation ASCI scaleable nuclear weapons codes, for use on a series of ever more powerful MPP machines, and validate these codes against data from experimental facilities now under construction (such as the NIF and DARHT) while a majority of current test-trained nuclear weapon designers remain available to participate in this process, and before the cumulative magnitude of potential aging effects and/or deliberately induced changes in the stockpile leads to an erosion in the technical basis for confidence in nuclear explosive performance.

The DOE is also concerned with planning for a time when the technical personnel charged with sustaining and modifying the U.S. nuclear arsenal will not have had the experience of designing and explosively testing a new nuclear weapon type. Can the expertise of Cold War nuclear weapon specialists be matched by the next generation who must work within the constraints of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty? This issue was raised in DOE's key SSMP planning document -- the "Green Book" -- in a discussion of U.S. nuclear stockpile assessment:

Maintaining and developing the personnel capable of performing accurate, reliable assessments of the stockpile is an additional challenge of the assessment program. Confidence in the stockpile is subjective; it rests on the judgment of people. As we move into the next decade, the scientists and engineers responsible for these judgments will have had little or no direct nuclear weapon development or nuclear test experience. The assessment program for nonnuclear components is, like the rest of the weapons program, in jeopardy of losing capabilities, skills, and equipment that were taken for granted in the past. Personnel retention and training in the scientific and engineering disciplines related to development and testing of nonnuclear and nuclear components will also be a priority. The judgments of the next generation will be based on using new and existing tools, which must be qualified while experienced personnel are still accessible. This will be done through the integrated assessment program.[105]

Note that while the DOE seeks in the SSMP to maintain its capability to perform "accurate, reliable assessments of the stockpile," confidence is qualified as "subjective." The reliability of the nuclear explosive package of a weapon is not quantified as a probability. During the U.S. nuclear testing program no statistically significant set of tests for overall nuclear explosive performance were performed for any particular combination of primary and secondary designs. Given that many such tests would be required to demostrate high (e.g. 90 percent) confidence that a given device type would achieve its rated yield, such a statistical measure of reliability was probably deemed impractical and a waste of resources -- when the quality of the subjective judgments of nuclear weapon designers, as well as their nuclear code predictions, could be verified "down hole" in the Nevada desert. An overall statistical assessment of the accuracy of nuclear weapon code predictions relative to actual measured nuclear test results was possible, however, and supports the conclusion that the performance of current enduring stockpile primary and secondary designs is predictable and fairly robust (i.e., insensitive to small changes in tolerances and materials, such as those experienced in the shift from lab-fabricated development prototypes to mass-produced weapons for the "war reserve" stockpile.

Importantly, the reliability of most of the components in a nuclear weapon -- the nonnuclear components -- can be tested in a statistically significant way, as required.[106] In the above "Green Book" quotation, DOE seeks to perpetuate the personnel base skilled in the "development" of nuclear and nonnuclear weapon components, as well as in the "assessment" of the existing stockpile.

In light of the end of the Cold War, the significant reductions in nuclear arsenals already achieved and planned under START II and III, and the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, it would appear an open question whether the United States requires a new generation of nuclear weapon designers to replace those who designed the current U.S. arsenal. After all, the set of skills required to carefully survey and maintain the operability of a static or diminishing arsenal, comprised of a limited number of relatively robust designs certified through past underground testing, can plausibly be distinguished from the set of skills required to create and certify new weapons for new military applications, or significant modifications to existing weapons.

In a chapter of the "Green Book" entitled "Contingencies," the DOE lays out current program needs that anticipate a possible return to higher levels of activity by the nuclear weapon complex:

Changes in the stockpile can be precipitated by new military requirements; unanticipated degradation of warhead components that require testing for evaluation or replacement certification; replacement at rates above current capacity; or nuclear emergencies involving U.S. warheads.

DOE must be prepared to respond to changes in either the U.S. stockpile or external threats.[107]

To prepare for such contingencies, the "ability to design new warheads will be retained by DOE at its Defense Programs (DP) laboratories: Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and Sandia National Laboratory (SNL) (emphasis added)."[108] Furthermore the DOE states that ASCI, which includes the Academic Strategic Alliances Program, is essential to maintain this design capability. Well before DOE announced this initiative, the "Green Book" discussed the benefits to be had from areas of overlap between nuclear weapons and academic and industry research:

Indeed, for the technical vitality and quality of the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program, interaction with the broader scientific and technical community is essential. Many arenas of assessment technology are largely unclassified in nature and are researched actively by industry and universities. To ensure that the foremost judgment and capabilities are available for assessing the safety, security, and reliability of the stockpile, it will be important to extend our collaborative programs with universities and industry. These collaborations will further enhance the science and technology base that can be used for U.S. nuclear defense needs. Strong collaborations with universities will help form a cadre of young scientists trained in defense-related capabilities. Additionally, these collaborative programs, through teaming, competition, and peer review will fine-tune the skills of the personnel conducting the assessment of the stockpile. To address the needs of the stockpile, the foremost science and technology in the world will be utilized (emphasis added).[109]

Beyond bolstering the quality of some Defense Programs research through outside peer review, collaboration, and competition, enhanced contacts with the universities are viewed by the DOE as a training-ground for the next generation of nuclear weapons specialists. Given that Academic Strategic Alliances Program research is an integral part of the nuclear weapons "virtual testing" and "virtual prototyping" efforts at the national laboratories, it is logical to conclude that the hundreds of students, faculty, and staff involved in the Alliances Program are preeminent among the "cadre of young scientists" sought by DOE.

It is clear that the Alliances Program Principal Investigators have been made aware of DOE's desire to recruit nuclear weapons specialists from the students and others working at their Centers. As noted above, the DOE was candid about this fact prior to soliciting grant proposals from the universities. At the "ASCI [Academic Strategic Alliances Program] Principal Investigators Meeting" held 14-15 October 1997 in Snowbird, Utah, Larzelere showed a vu-graph entitled "Timing of ASCI deliverables is driven by the stockpile" which is reproduced as Figure 4.1, below. The image of the vu-graph available on the World Wide Web is of poor quality, but it is clear the Larzelere has shown the declining level of "Designer Expertise" in the context of the aging U.S. stockpile during a talk entitled "Building Simulation Capabilities -- A Case Study."[110]

Furthermore, Academic Alliances research proposals themselves contain sections on interactions with the DP laboratories and educational and training activities. These discussions range from rather general statements -- particularly about the interdisciplinary education and training -- to statements asserting that Center graduates are likely seek employment at the nuclear weapons laboratories. Caltech states in its research proposal:

Programs of study: Graduate students expressing an interest in pursuing research under the auspices of the proposed Caltech ASCI Alliance would be encouraged to pursue a minor course of studies that would prepare them for further work in the area of computational modeling in the relevant sciences. A special curriculum would be tailored for the student depending on their research interests but in all cases students would be encouraged to enroll in courses dealing with numerical and semi-numerical algorithms, as well as parallel computational and software engineering. In addition, students would be encouraged to broaden their backgrounds in the relevant disciplinary fields covered in this proposal. Caltech, through its course offerings in areas such as astrophysics, gas dynamics, and computational fluid mechanics has educated and trained a significant number of graduates who have then gone on to research careers within the DP Laboratories.[111]

A tailored, interdisciplinary selection of graduate coursework coupled with ASCI research is probably an effective preparation for a career in the field of nuclear weapons. However it is clear that significant additional training would be required at DP, particularly for the elite set of future nuclear weapon designers.

Figure 4.1: Viewgraph shown during Alex Larzelere's presentation to the ASCI [Academic Strategic Alliances Program] Principal Investigators Meeting held at Snowbird, Utah on 14-15 October 1997. This and other viewgraphs can be accessed at http://www.llnl.gov/asci-alliances/slide/larzelere/.

A perspective on the training that would await Academic Strategic Alliances Program graduates who pursue careers as nuclear weapons specialists is given in the Los Alamos Weapons Insider describing the Theoretical Institute for Thermonuclear and Nuclear Studies (TITANS):

X Division, under the sponsorship of NWT, is conducting the Theoretical Institute for Thermonuclear and Nuclear Studies (TITANS). The focus of TITANS is a formalized training curriculum in nuclear weapon design and analysis.

The objectives of TITANS are (1) to educate LANL staff members in nuclear weapon science, (2) to assist in a mentoring process for an appropriate number of new nuclear weapon designers, and (3) to formalize reference material in the discipline of nuclear weapon science in a series of graduate level textbooks.

These objectives are addressed by three basic components of TITANS: (1) a classroom component, with lectures, outside reading assignments, homework problems, and examinations, (2) a mentoring component, with short-term research projects and a semester thesis project, and (3) a textbook-series development component.

The course work and research projects are targeted at a level appropriate for the 13 core students enrolled in the design and professional development tracks of TITANS. Nevertheless, to date, about half of the X Division staff members and approximately 50 staff members from other divisions (ESA, P, CIC, NIS, AOT, CST, DX, and NWT) have attended one or more lectures.[112]

As we discussed earlier in Chapter II, nuclear weapons science and engineering encompasses a broad spectrum of fields to which the incoming TITANS class may not bring a uniform background. The current DOE yen for declassifying weapons-relevant basic science notwithstanding, these lectures will probably not show up in a local technical bookstore.

The course work portion of TITANS began in October 1996 and will run through December 1997. It is divided up into ten modules. The introductory module gave the students an overview of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon science over the course of 15 lectures. TITANS then transitioned into the technical discipline modules, covering the fields of Hydrodynamics, Nuclear Physics, Atomic Physics, Neutral and Charged Particle Transport, Radiation Transport, and Opacities. These lectures are classified, as their scope and content is heavily weighted toward nuclear weapon applications.[113]

As we also emphasized in Chapter II, nuclear weapons codes are principal design tools, and require training independent from the basic science which underlies them:

Concurrent with classes on the technical discipline subjects, the course is conducing code months, where the students receive instruction and tutoring on the physics and usage of the Division's main weapon design and analysis codes. Following the technical discipline modules, the course runs to completion with an extensive nuclear weapon design and analysis module.[114]

In a direct analogy to unclassified academic research, where a student's Ph.D. dissertation must constitute original, publishable work, the TITANS program requires that its graduates publish in the Defense Research Review, a peer-reviewed, classified journal of the U.S. nuclear weapons program:[115]

Students' thesis projects are selected in consultation with the appropriate group leaders and the cognizant NWT program manager. The research is completed when the student's thesis work is submitted to and accepted for publication in Defense Research Review. [116]

The remainder of the Weapons Insider article begs to be reproduced here, if for no other reason than its almost surreal juxtaposition of happy collegial bustle with the process of educating those who choose to design weapons of mass destruction:

The amount of work going into the planning and conduct of TITANS, at times, seems overwhelming. From planning, preparing, and coordinating lectures, to working the logistics of audio and video-taping, classification reviews and markings, and photocopying reference material, to creating appropriate homework assignments and conducting homework discussion sessions, TITANS staff and professors have had their hands full.

The students' enthusiasm is a real source of inspiration. Frequently, after class, there are a half-dozen students that remain in the class-room to ask follow-up questions, and one often hears them discussing homework problems in the hallways. And, according to Marty Wooten, the X Division vault has become something of a high-usage study hall.

Although it is too early to judge the ultimate value of TITANS, early indications are quite promising.[117]

The DOE has been publicly candid in its statements regarding the role of the Academic Strategic Alliances Program in training and recruiting the next generation of U.S. nuclear weapons specialists. This may be the most controversial aspect of the program for members of the academic community, particularly since DOE's SSMP perpetuates the Cold War mission of designing and certifying new nuclear weapons and new nuclear weapon components. Moreover, this controversy may be exacerbated by the substantial matching funds (or other services) universities initially offered these Centers as support during the Alliances Program competition.

One paradoxical aspect of the Academic Strategic Alliances Program is that DOE claims the DOE DP sponsored university research to be both unclassified and critically important to the U.S. nuclear weapons program. While most of this academic research is intended to be unclassified, program documents indicate that some participants will be engaged in classified research. According to the "Short-Term ASCI Alliances Platform Access Policy," "Each ASAP University partner will be given an allocation on the [unclassified] Blue and the [classified] Sky [computer] machines [at LLNL] (Sky users will need a Q-clearance and be on site at one of the tri-laboratories to use the machine)."[118] This same policy statement establishes the following restrictions applicable to university faculty, staff and students:

Short Term Limitations

Although the ASCI program is committed to providing access that is equivalent to that provided to the National Laboratories, there are some short-term limitations on this access. The following list of highlights some of the limitations that will be addressed in developing the long term policy.

  1. Foreign National access is currently prohibited on all ASCI platforms

  2. Foreign National access to ASCI export controlled codes is currently prohibited.[119]

DOE promulgated its short-term access policy well after the Academic Strategic Alliances Program was launched and after the "Centers of Excellence" were selected; and a long-term access policy has yet to be developed. This sequence of events reflects the fact that the Alliances Program was well under way before DOE began to address its security implications. By the same token, the extent to which the Alliances Program will contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons has yet to be thoroughly assessed.

In addition to complex questions regarding access by foreign and other uncleared university personnel to sensitive nuclear weapons design information, the Academic Strategic Alliances Program raises disturbing questions relating to the "steering" and gradual seduction of graduate students into nuclear weapons work. At the very time in which students are exploring and seeking to establish the dimensions of their own personal moral universe, the Academic Strategic Alliances Program forces an early choice between involuntary utilization of one's work product for nuclear weapons work, and possibly foregoing graduate research support in one's chosen field of endeavor.

The hitherto unquestioning support of major research universities for the Academic Strategic Alliances Program, extended under the rationale that the nuclear weapons simulation objectives of the research are "necessary" to preserve the "reliability" and "safety" of U.S. nuclear weapons, represents an obvious -- but financially fortuitous -- failure to comprehend the full scope of the current nuclear weapons program. But in this, as in many other matters, ignorance is not bliss.

The implications for the future of nuclear weapons proliferation and the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons -- to say nothing of global acceptance and entry-into force of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty -- are too important to be left to a small cadre of weaponeers in Washington seeking to "leverage" support for the nuclear weapons enterprise by capitalizing on the shortage of funds for university scientific research. Those academic communities that would, in the end, offer no resistance to the Faustian bargain proffered by the Alliances Program, should nonetheless feel obliged to explore and debate, in precise terms, the full implications of the work they have contracted to perform for the U.S. nuclear weapons program.


104. "Labs to Join with Universities on High-Performance Computer Effort," Inside Energy/with Federal Lands, November 25, 1996, p. 10.

105. "Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan," U.S. Department of Energy, Defense Programs, February 29, 1996, pp. IV-30 to IV-31.

106. This is a major reason why the "Green Book" treats nuclear and nonnuclear issues individually.

107. Ibid., p. VII-1.

108. Ibid.

109. Ibid., p. IV-31.

110. http://www.llnl.gov/asci-alliances/slide/larzelere

111. "A Facility for Simulating the Dynamic Response of Materials," Section 3.4 Education and training activities, p. 1.

112. "TITANS," Los Alamos Weapons Insider, " Vol. 4, Issue 2 (March 1997), p. 4. The article is reproduced in its entirety in this and subsequent quotes.

113. Ibid.

114. Ibid.

115. NRDC obtained a heavily-deleted copy of an article from the Defense Research Review, Volume 3, Number 2, dated July 1991. Thus, Defense Research Review must have originated in 1988 or 1989. The Defense Research Review is a joint, quarterly publication of LANL, LLNL, and Sandia. In 1991 the editorial staff was drawn exclusively from the national laboratories but the Advisory Board included Roy Axford (University of Illinois), Hans Bethe (Cornell University), and A. K. Kerman (MIT).

116. "TITANS," Los Alamos Weapons Insider, " Vol. 4, Issue 2 (March 1997), p. 4.

117. Ibid.

118. "ShortTerm ASCI Alliances Platform Access Policy," http://www.llnl.gov/asci-alliances/9711policy.html (Modified on 11/11/97).

119. Ibid.

Back to contents page

last revised 1/22/1998

Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter

See the latest issue >

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.

Donate now >

Share | |
Find NRDC on